The Washington Wizards parted ways with Scott Brooks yesterday, a seemingly agonizing decision that took them weeks despite the fact that it could have been made by Captain Obvious in February. Someone else will be sketching Xs and Os on the white board next season — perhaps even using a permanent marker so players will remember.
It’s worth tapping the brakes on the potential impact of someone else as coach. Brooks wasn’t good — I never would have hired him in the first place, and I was ready to move on from him two years ago — but the real problem has always been the roster. And the roster problems are the result of a franchise strategy that’s misguided, pointless, and comes from the C-suite.
As a long-time observer of this franchise, I’m accustomed to misguided and pointless strategy.
It was there when they traded Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe. And when they dealt Ben Wallace and Tim Legler and Jeff McInnis and Terry Davis for Isaac Austin. And when they swapped the fifth pick in the draft for Mike Miller and Randy Foye (former owner Abe Pollin told Ernie Grunfeld he wanted to win a title before he died, NOT trade a good pick for mediocrities). And when they traded fat salary cap space for Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor. And when they traded Kelly Oubre for Zombie Ariza. And when they gave away Otto Porter for nothing. And...I’ll stop there. This could go a long time.
The current Wizards strategy is basically to win “enough” to persuade Bradley Beal to stick around until he signs a super-max contract. I’m not quite sure why this is a franchise-level goal, but I confess to being confused by Ted Leonsis’ franchise-level goals since he bought the team.
For example, he talked about winning but retained Ernie Grunfeld as his top executive long past the point of absurdity. And he persistently couched his desire for wins with absurd phrasing like “contend for the playoffs.” That’s a marketing sleight of hand, which is a polite euphemism for horse hockey, which is a polite euphemism for...something else.
Point being: “contend” is something teams do for championships. In a league where 16-of-30 teams make the postseason, the playoffs are something you make. Especially if you’re a perpetual bottom feeder like the Wizards have been. You can make the stupid argument (Leonsis did) that you can’t win a championship without making the playoffs, but even the most casual NBA fan knows that “making the playoffs” is not synonymous with competing for a championship.
As my friend Ben Becker will attest, I’ve griped since Leonsis bought the team about the front office’s penchant for taking the wrong lesson from nearly anything, and about their unrivaled ability to set bad goals.
For example, that trade for Okafor and Ariza so they could “contend for the playoffs.” Why? Because...reasons? Because...they bought into the Michael Wilbon platitude “first you win, then you get good,” which is supported by nothing because it’s total nonsense? Kinda like, “we need continuity because good teams have continuity” when the causality runs the opposite direction. Meaning: when a team is good, they stay together and therefore have continuity. When a team is bad, the thing to do is make changes until it’s good (or has a reasonable chance of being good). Then keep the core group together.
Back to the point: Why not use that cap space to sign someone who fit with the team’s young “stars” and was young enough to grow with them?
As is the fashion at F Street, the Wizards are back at it. They’ve decided to make a two-year run at “contending” with Beal and Russell Westbrook even though, a) it’s not clear what they’re contending for, and b) it doesn’t make any sense.
A team built around players of Beal’s and Westbrook’s caliber are perfect for a first round exit from the playoffs. They’re both good-to-very good, but neither is elite — not in the game-in-game-out way that the game’s true elite exist in the NBA ecosystem. The Wizards’ braintrust — and many fans — disagree with me on that. But, well...y’all are wrong.
The calculus changes if Beal makes a leap to elite level, or if Westbrook guzzles from the fountain of youth and reverts to 2016-17 form. But, there aren’t many guards who make significant production jumps in their age 28 season, and there are even fewer who can seriously say, “I’m 33 and my basketball game is sooo much better.”
Note: when I use “production,” I’m not talking about scoring. I’m talking about the totality of what a player does on the floor to help his team win.
Of course, the franchise could — in theory — make a bold move to add talent that would improve their fortunes. But, they have limited financial resources below the luxury tax threshold, limited ability to spend into the luxury tax even if they wanted, and the 15th pick in the draft.
The coaching change could provide some marginal help. Brooks cost the team a few games with vanilla schemes and iffy lineup decisions. He also won them a few with the atmosphere he created and a willingness to trust His Guys until they came through. But, the number one drag on the team’s ability to compete for something more meaningful than a first-round exit is Leonsis and his nonsense goals.
The Wizards' objective is to win now with two very good players and a mediocre (or worse) roster. Here’s the complete list of teams in NBA history with that profile that contended for anything more than a playoffs appearance and a first-round defeat: [/list].
Don’t come at me with those “no-star” Detroit Pistons. They had elite producers who looked different than “normal” elite players.
Now, in fairness to Leonsis and the Wizards front office, their goal — if they stated it clearly — isn’t total nonsense. It just doesn’t have anything to do with winning. They’re running a business that can sell two things: wins or hope. Sure, Leonsis will mouth platitudes about making the team “championship-caliber” but they’re selling Beal as a franchise player (which he’s not), and hoping to patch together a good enough record to sell tickets and merchandise and generate better TV ratings and some positive pixels.
And that’s fine. It’s a business, and the owners of that business get to measure success how they want. Ticket sales and profits are valid metrics. They could trade Beal and Davis Bertans and whatever else another team might value and try for a full rebuild into a genuine title contender. But, there are no guarantees that strategy will work, and it can always be done later.
Still, a team can be entertaining, competitive night-to-night, and profitable without being a title contender. That’s where the Wizards will reside for the next couple seasons, no matter who takes the head coach job. They’ll win what they can, which will probably be 4-5 games from .500 (in either direction) depending on health. They’ll likely make the playoffs and get bounced in the first round.
Fans will scream for the head of the non-Brooks coach, whoever that may be, and the team can reassess and set new pointless goals. Beal may still be tradeable at that point, though he’s more likely to be even more entrenched with the Wizards at 30 than he is now.
But, that’s getting into the speculative future. The next couple seasons will probably look a lot like this last one, albeit with 99.9% less COVID (hopefully). There are worse things. It was a feisty team that had roster holes and lacked talent but still entertained. And fans got to see Beal — a homegrown star — pour in points night after night.
One day, Leonsis may decide to put real resources into winning a title, or he may sell the team to someone who genuinely wants to compete at that level. Until then, hope for a feisty and entertaining team, and learn to tolerate the marketing
bullsh...sleight of hand.