I get that writing this piece on the day after a hard-fought win last night may make me sound like a “Debbie Downer.” But I still believe all of what I’m about to say has to be said.
The Washington Wizards have started the 2020-21 NBA season with much adversity. Though they won yesterday in amazing fashion, Washington still has the worst record in the NBA, traded away their long-time franchise point guard for a seemingly injured All-NBA star point guard who appears to be on the decline, lost their budding starting center to a season-ending ACL injury, and then their team had a massive coronavirus outbreak that the team ended up missing two weeks worth of games and have had to play a number of games playing short handed.
The season couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. But for fans, there hasn’t been much to root for in the past three years. Since being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the DeMar DeRozan-led Toronto Raptors in 2017-18 season, the Wizards have missed the playoffs each of the past two years and have posted a 60-109 record since their last playoff appearance.
Many looking at the team will look at firing their coach, which is a fair thing to look at. Scott Brooks, who is on the last year of a five-year $35 million contract, but if we really look deeper into this organization, there is a subject that as a fanbase hasn’t been breached enough, and that’s the impact that principal owner Ted Leonsis has made.
The Beginning: How Leonsis came to own the Wizards
Many of us know the story of Leonsis and his ties to this team. He started off buying the Washington Capitals NHL team as a majority owner and at the same time becoming a minority owner of the Washington Wizards back in 1999 and earning the right of refusal to buy them at some point, as well as other entities then-majority owner Abe Pollin had at the time, including the now-Capital One Arena and the Washington Mystics WNBA team.
During his time as the Capitals’ owner, the team has thrived as three-time winners of the President’s Cup (team with most points during the regular season), annually near the top of the league in attendance and then became the NHL Stanley Cup Champions in 2018. And as the Mystics’ owner, the team made made two consecutive WNBA Finals in 2018 and 2019, winning the championship in the latter year.
Leonsis’ ascension to controlling the Wizards came after the passing of long-time majority owner Abe Pollin in November 2009. The timing of his rise to controlling the Wizards’ ownership was mired with quite a few challenges. He became the principal owner just months after the infamous Gungate incident, in which long-time star Gilbert Arenas was suspended for bringing firearms into the locker room as a part of a feud with then-guard Javaris Crittenton. The incident brought a circus-like atmosphere to the team on the heels of their owner’s passing just weeks prior.
Fortunately for the Wizards, they were able to win the draft lottery in the Spring of 2010 and Leonsis was left with a huge decision. The team needed an infusion of talent, but more than anything they needed a new face of the franchise to erase the embarrassing memories left from the Gungate incident.
With the first pick of the draft, the franchise selected John Wall. He was truly a breath of fresh air and it gave the team an opportunity to quickly move away from Arenas, who was eventually traded later on during the following season. This decision, while many would agree, was needed. There were several things that happened as a result of Gungate that has shaped this franchise, even as it is currently constructed today.
The fallout of an infamous locker room incident still influences the Wizards today.
After Arenas was traded, there was much conversation about the culture of the team. During the Arenas’ era there were a story of his defecating in a teammate’s shoes, Arenas allegedly not playing in a game to avoid being served a court order during a game by the mother of his children, cutting up teammates suits and numerous other questionable incidents.
Even after Arenas was long gone, there were players like JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Andray Blatche, who had reputations for simply not being professional in their approach to winning basketball. Clearly the issue was deeper than simply getting rid of Arenas. Once Leonsis took over however, with the No. 1 pick in tow, instead of hitting a complete reset with the franchise, he opted to maintain the front office that was in place which included then-President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld, and current Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard.
It’s fair to say that perhaps many of the issues that existed with the team during that time, happened because of Arenas’ eccentric and often times brazen nature, but it is equally fair to point out that the organization as a whole lacked accountability to the players who were in the organization, Arenas included. Leonsis’ transition to ownership could have been an opportunity to set things anew.
Fresh faces, fresh ideas, new approaches to building a winning culture, but none of this transpired. Instead the team kept the leadership structure of the front office in tact, and changed the team’s personnel instead. From a cultural standpoint, it helped infuse a more mature approach to the game, but it did not result in much change on the court, as the team failed to reach the Conference Finals after Arenas was ousted, in much the same way that they failed to reach that point during his tenure.
In addition to lack of change from a front office standpoint, the team also had a change in how they viewed Arenas. For years, Arenas had billboards, posters and just about any type of publication made available by the team centered around Arenas. After the fallout of the Gungate incident, the team erased any and every public acknowledgment of Arenas’ association with the team. Rarely do you see the team acknowledge his contributions on the court or even in the community when he was a part of the franchise since his departure.
Certainly this decision is understandable, especially given some of Arenas’ antics even after leaving the Wizards, but what it has done, is it has taken away the connection the team had with one of its most dynamic talents and a fan favorite.
For as hard as it is to associate with Arenas, Leonsis is going to be known to be responsible for this decision and for some that may be difficult to accept, even if it ultimately may be the right decision. But even as Leonsis made this decision, recently the team was left with yet another decision to move on from yet another all-time franchise player.
Wall’s departure and lack of mentioning the Wizards by name gives us cause to pause, especially considering Arenas’ departure.
With Wall’s trade this offseason for Russell Westbrook, there is a lot that is unknown about the fallout that lead to Wall’s departure, but there are some subtle things that became clear. Wall did not acknowledge the franchise in his departing statement.
There also appeared to be some passive aggressive jabs at Wall by Leonsis by emphasizing Westbrook being of “high-character” and “durable.”
Welcome to Washington DC @russwest44 and family. A 9-time all-star— former MVP— and a player with a huge heart who plays with passion and toughness and high energy. A proven winner— and big game player— who is durable and has high character. https://t.co/A3n9EFmzBh— Ted Leonsis (@TedLeonsis) December 3, 2020
If you’re not following what’s happening, then perhaps it should be pointed out that all of this is on the heels of John Wall infamously posting a viral video on social media where he is throwing up gang signs with numerous people in the room – mind you while during a global pandemic. The move was frown upon mightily to the point that Wall apologized.
You also have to consider that Wall has missed nearly two seasons of action due to numerous injuries until the beginning of this season as well. The words that Leonsis used to described Westbrook seemed like a reference to these two items that Wall has recently struggled with. Then when you hear Wall’s words this past week, after his new team, the Houston Rockets, beat the Wizards, it sounds like Wall thought the front office and/or even ownership had given up on him.
You can say what you want about the trade itself and whether it was a good trade, but the one item that has rarely been mentioned, is just like Arenas, we may be witnessing yet another important figure in this franchise, whether fairly or unfairly, being ostracized by Leonsis. It’s possible that Wall overcomes his differences with the franchise and eventually accepts recognition that he had contributed to the team, but right now that doesn’t look like it’s in the cards.
Though the Wizards have unceremoniously let go of franchise stars, they still keep key staff for much longer.
So if we are keeping count during the Leonsis Era, we have yet to see the Wizards go beyond any of the on-court success that existed in the 1970s, well before Leonsis took over. We have also seen perhaps two of the most important figures in the history of the franchise unceremoniously shipped out and we have also seen Leonsis remain loyal to the staff who has had little to no success before or during his tenure as majority owner.
It’s fair to say that Sheppard could be different than his predecessor, Grunfeld, especially since he works with Monumental Basketball the Wizards’ and Mystics’ shared services group which includes new staff members like John Thompson III and Sashi Brown, just to name a few.
While Monumental Basketball may be doing good things, Brown and Thompson work on off-the-court elements around Wizards and Mystics players’ lives like how they engage with the community and how they should prepare for their lives after basketball. Sheppard on the other hand, is directly involved in basketball operations. He has remained in Washington for nearly 20 years.
For a team who implored people that they would push for the playoffs this season, and who reportedly have stated to the team’s star shooting guard Bradley Beal that would compete while he’s still here, the team has, so far, has failed miserably.
Leonsis and his front office has continued to employ a lame duck head coach in Scott Brooks, who has coached a team that has declined in winning percentage each of the over four seasons that he has coached them
Then there are numerous missteps that Leonsis has taken, whether it’s declaring John Wall, Jordan Crawford and Andray Blatche as the team’s new “Big Three”. Or it’s lauding about the team’s increase in ratings while the team continues to struggle.
What we have seen with Leonsis during his time as owner, has simply been a tone deaf, apathetic approach this operation. The expectation for winning has remained low, but the team has centered much of its efforts on marketing its newly found international players like Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija to new audiences overseas.
Certainly from a business standpoint, it makes sense. But the Wizards fanbase, the local fans in particular won’t care about that when the team continues to underperform. What the fanbase wants more than empty promises and holding on to front office staff and head coaches far past the time of reasonably expecting better results. This fanbase wants more than catchy slogans like “DC Family,” “Rep The District” or “DC Above All” and the red, white and blue color scheme.
What fans expect is an owner to have the same expectations of his NBA team as much as he does for his NHL team and his WNBA team, both of whom won recent championships.
In much the same way that then-Capitals General Manager George McPhee was let go in 2014 for failure to build a team that can go deep into the NHL playoffs, Wizards fans want Leonsis to hold the Wizards to those same expectations.
It’s even more disappointing to see the Wizards continue to languish when Leonsis has overseen a team transformation over time when he puts the effort into it. The Mystics were regarded as a very bad WNBA franchise for most of Leonsis’ early ownership of their team from 2005-12, even when they made the playoffs. After a franchise-worst 11-57 stretch from 2011-12, they fired then-General Manager and Head Coach Trudi Lacey and replaced her with Mike Thibault. Though it took several years to turn around a perennial loser into a winner and a WNBA champion, the culture changed completely for the better. In short, the Mystics’ dramatic improvement happened while he also owned the NBA team.
Wizards fans also hope to see that winning culture their sibling teams have, and they want to do see it in a proactive way. It should not take illegal activities or unflattering viral videos to determine if a player is unfit to lead a franchise. The tone and expectation should already be set and every player should fall in line with that culture. So far, the Wizards have yet to do this under Ted Leonsis.
So while we argue about which Grunfeld move hurt the team the most, or if Tommy Sheppard could have fetched a better trade for John Wall, what we really should be talking about is the common thread between all of these actions and that’s the owner.
It’s time to talk about Ted Leonsis.
I don’t mean to say that everything that Ted has done has been bad. I believe deep down he can be an owner of a perennially-winning NBA team. He is loyal to his staff, he has done a lot to improve the overall game experience of going to Capital One Arena – when it has been open to fans, and he has done an amazing job with the Capitals and the Mystics.
The fact remains though, is that he has not done enough to get the on court product to improve for the Wizards. The question is now, when are we going to acknowledge that he has to do more to change the tide of this franchise?