Washington Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard has had a busy off-season so far which included pulling off one of the most complex trades in NBA history, which involved trading Russell Westbrook for a quite a haul in return. For many pundits, despite giving up the former NBA MVP, the Wizards were viewed as winners in this trade because they created cap flexibility and they added much needed depth to their roster. Without a doubt the Wizards gave themselves some options going forward and perhaps added a deeper team around Bradley Beal, but as much as this move is celebrated, fans should celebrate cautiously.
Certainly, Sheppard did not start his time as GM with a full deck of cards. He had an injured star point guard in John Wall who would end up missing the most part of two seasons while being on a supermax contract. He also inherited a host of other bad contracts including the infamous $64 million bill paid to former Wizards center Ian Mahinmi.
Playoffs for years, even with those cards on the table have been the bar that this franchise has set for themselves. In reality, the NBA has some of the highest odds of teams making the playoffs of all the major North American sports leagues. More teams actually make the playoffs than miss it. If you include qualifying for a spot in the play-in tournament, the road to some type of post season is not very challenging. Sixty six percent of the teams in the league at least make the play-in tournament. For years, this franchise has sold fans on these accomplishments, despite how simple they may be.
With that said, this offseason should, at minimum, keep the Wizards in contention for a playoff spot. Consider this though, in the past 5 seasons every team in the NBA has made the playoffs at least once except one team, the Sacramento Kings. If this team simply makes the playoffs again, only to be first round fodder for the likes of Brooklyn, Milwaukee or Philadelphia, then what has really changed?
What has happened this offseason is certainly not a negative, but we have to look at the reality of where this team has been. This team has not been to a conference finals since the 1978-79 season.
In the past 30 seasons, the Wizards are one of three teams that have not reached a conference finals. The other two teams have been relatively newer teams during this time period – the original Charlotte Hornets (currently the New Orleans Pelicans, who started in 1988-89) and the new Charlotte Hornets (originally the Bobcats who started in 2004-05).
We should no longer measure Tommy Sheppard on his ability to build a playoff team because we have seen that road long enough. The true signal of how good Sheppard really should be, is if he can finally get this team over the hump and finally become contenders.
He has gone through a thorough coaching search to hire Wes Unseld Jr., who by most accounts appears to be a much heralded basketball mind. If Unseld Jr. becomes an upgrade over the likes of Scott Brooks and Randy Wittman than perhaps he can help maximize the talent on this team and hopefully change the trajectory of this team going forward. This franchise since 1980 has only had one winning coach, Bernie Bickerstaff. Having a successful coach is simply something that this team has not seen in quite some time.
So we can certainly celebrate having a much more exciting outlook for this team going forward, but we must remember these moves must lead to more before we gives Tommy Sheppard his due. The bar for this franchise has been low for so long, but that doesn’t mean we have to lower our standards for Sheppard. In a vacuum, Sheppard has made mostly sound moves to improve this team, but until we see a difference of where this team is going that is different than the previous 40 some years, then we can celebrate, but celebrate with caution.