The fate of the 2021-22 Wizards was officially sealed on Thursday night. After a one-year hiatus, the organization finds itself back in the friendly confines of the mid-lottery. Here's to hoping for some lucky bounces for once!
Despite some disturbing losses post-Beal injury, the team never fully embraced the "mail it in" approach. Kristaps Porzingis has played in 13 of the past 14 games. Sturdy vets such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Tomas Satoranky (and even Anthony Gill) have been fixtures in the rotation. Only Kyle Kuzma was shut down -- but that ailment seems legitimate.
Should the Wiz have pursued every last drop of Top-4 pick equity via the Portland/Indiana route instead? It appears that a few key people stand with this line of thinking:
"1. Ask yourself the big question: "Can this team--as constructed--ever win a championship?" If the answer is yes -- stay the course and try to find the right formula -- if the answer is no, then plan to rebuild. Don't fake it--really do the analytics and be brutally honest." - Ted Leonsis in his Ten-Point Plan.
"I don’t ever wanna say, ‘Let’s go get the eighth spot.’ That’s not the big picture at all." - Tommy Sheppard, July 2019
Unfortunately, these words ring hollow when you unpack the recent actions of the Washington Wizards. Let's start with the impetus for Sheppard receiving job in the first place:
"We did not meet our stated goals of qualifying for the playoffs this season and, despite playing with injuries to several key players, we have a culture of accountability and a responsibility of managing to positive outcomes." - Leonsis after firing Ernie Grunfeld.
Yes, it may be true that the franchise hasn't mortgaged much draft capital (the only one being the first-rounder in the Wall for Russ swap), but they've also missed on opportunities to exchange present for future.
Relatedly, the Wizards rank 29th in ESPN's NBA Future Power Rankings poll. Do we call this "spinning your tires in mud?"
And now, five years after falling to Boston in Game 7, the Wizards find themselves entrenched in the worst position in sports: the "treadmill of mediocrity."
2018–22 Washington Wizards
|1||43-39||8||Lost in 6||15 (TBJ)|
|4||34-38||8||Lost in 5||15 (Kispert)|
|5||??||11 or 12||N/A||??|
Washington has been adrift for the past five seasons -- not good enough for meaningful basketball, yet not bad enough for meaningful lottery odds. Quite frankly, it's been a waste of all of our time.
What can you point to that made you excited to be a Wizards fan?
Sure, witnessing the fully-formed Bradley Beal compete for scoring titles. Perhaps "Everybody Eats," but that was short-lived and fraught with passive-aggression. Davis Bertans bombing 3s two years ago before the world shut down? Robin Lopez making a zillion hook shots in a row? Patiently monitoring the development of one of the kiddos into a potential bonafide 5th starter? (Please don't tell me the ill-fated 17-6 run to close 2020-21).
To see where the franchise is headed from here, I examined three teams that recently found themselves stuck in the middle for five straight seasons -- finishing between 7th and 12th in the Eastern Conference. What lessons can the Washington Wizards learn from this?
We shall begin with a rosy comparison:
2007–11 Indiana Pacers
|1||35-47||10||N/A||N/A (traded before season for Al Harrington)|
|2||36-46||9||N/A||11 (traded down to #13 for Brandon Rush)|
|5||37-45||8||Lost in 5||15 (traded for George Hill)|
In the aftermath of the Malice at the Palace, a franchise typically defined by steadiness found itself in distress. The Pacers had a budding all-star in Danny Granger, flanked by a veteran crew (Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O'Neal, Jamaal Tinsley) that didn't particularly gel. To complicate matters, general manager Larry Bird had already forked over the 2007 first-rounder to Atlanta for Harrington prior to the start of 2006-07.
Indiana roamed the wilderness for a few seasons as a result. And like the Wizards, the team made several moves of the "shuffle the deck chairs" variety -- trading Harrington and Jackson to the Warriors for Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy, replacing Rick Carlisle with Jim O'Brien, moving down from #11 to #13 in the 2008 Draft to land Jarrett Jack.
By 2013, the team was taking apex LeBron to 7 games in the Eastern Conference Finals, and looked even stronger in 2014 before a late-season collapse. So how did they manage to escape the jungle?
Much like Tommy Sheppard in D.C., Bird and co. executed lots of moves on the margins -- only with a much higher hit rate. They flipped O'Neal — on his last legs as an impactful contributor — to Toronto for a package that included Roy Hibbert, while Murphy was swapped out for Darren Collison. Lance Stephenson became a 2nd-round steal. The one splashy signing, David West for 2 years and $20MM, was a hand in glove fit.
But all of this is secondary to the selection at pick #10 in 2010 of Paul George -- a star (and potentially on the verge of superstardom until the injury at the Team USA scrimmage) who catapulted the franchise towards the summit. Barring a lottery miracle, will the Wizards ever land their Paul George? History and Sheppard's record says otherwise.
Next, here's a more median outcome:
2004–08 Philadelphia 76ers
|2||43-39||7||Lost in 5||N/A (traded in 2002)|
|3||38-44||9||N/A||13 (traded down to #16 for Rodney Carney)|
|5||40-42||7||Lost in 6||16 (Speights)|
In the twilight of Allen Iverson's prime, the Philadelphia 76ers were gradually becoming rotten. Even after the supplementing the icon with Chris Webber (never the same after tearing up his knee) and A.I. 2.0 in 2004-05, the franchise topped out as first-round roadkill during the mid-aughts.
By 2006-07, Iverson was dealt to Denver for Andre Miller plus two picks, and the team's performance never truly dipped (Everybody E...????). The Sixers seemingly approached this reboot from a position of strength -- by killing the draft. Aside from Iguodala at #9, they also scooped Lou Williams at #45, Thaddeus Young at #12, and Jrue Holiday at #18. The franchise even appeared (at the time) to catch a few monumental breaks, namely Elton Brand — then on a hall-of-fame trajectory — spurning the Clippers for the City of Brotherly Love in 2008, and jumping 4 spots in the 2010 Draft Lottery.
The rest is history, Elton Brand was a shell of himself post-Achilles rupture, while Evan Turner was *not* the Prince that was Promised. The rest of the young core was solid (even upsetting a Derrick Rose-less Bulls team!) yet lacking in championship promise. A new ownership group eventually realized that, paving the way for a fellow named Sam Hinkie.
Like the Wizards, Philly seemed to combat a true rebuild by "staying competitive" while also investing in player development. They were Andy DuFresne making a valiant effort to trudge through the mediocrity sludge -- only there was no open tunnel out of Shawshank. The lesson here: the margin for error is just that thin in this situation. The 76ers made lots of positive decisions, only to be sunk by a few major missteps. Has Sheppard shown a propensity to nail any types of moves other than minor trades? (It's difficult for me to give him credit for Russ to LA, given that it was orchestrated by higher powers).
And now, for a depressing comparison:
2007–11 Charlotte Bobcats
|1||33-49||12||N/A||8 (traded for JRich)|
|4||44-38||7||Lost in 4||N/A (traded for #20 [Ajinca] in previous draft)|
In the late-2000s, Charlotte sported a young nucleus with one future all-star (Gerald Wallace), and a potpourri of potential fourth starters or end of the rotation guys (Alexis Ajinca, D.J. Augustin, Raymond Felton, Gerald Henderson, Sean May, Adam Morrison, Emeka Okafor). Sound familiar? Well, without the "future all-star" part.
The outlook seemed somewhat bland, but it didn't stop the organization from trying to spark some excitement by shooting for wins. Jason Richardson was acquired from Golden State for the #8 pick in 2007, who was then flipped again in 2008 for Raja Bell and Boris Diaw. In 2009, in came Tyson Chandler, and out went Emeka Okafor.
Everything crested in the 2009-10 campaign. The Bobcats went 16-7 (so close to 17-6!) down the stretch in route to 44 wins under head coach Larry Brown. Mid-season pickup Stephen Jackson averaged over 20 per-game. Theo Ratliff and Tyrus Thomas provided additional beef down low. All of this culminating with...a first-round sweep at the hands of the Orlando Magic.
Charlotte eventually had to pay the piper for the lack of a long-term plan -- the scale-down began that subsequent offseason. Felton inked a 3-year deal with the Knicks, while Chandler was offloaded to Dallas for spare parts. Brown resigned midway through 2010-11, and Wallace was later sent to Portland for draft picks. These moves positioned the franchise towards a new era, starting with the 2011-12 lockout season. (We all know how that played out).
Both the 2007–11 Bobcats and the 2018–22 Wizards are emblematic of a harsh reality to the NBA: the big-picture always supersedes the day-to-day minutiae. The details don't really matter without that guiding light steering your franchise. In a vacuum, Jason Richardson for Brendan Wright may be good value, but what's the purpose of expending resources to go from 33 wins to 35? Turning Davis Bertans and Spencer Dinwiddie into Kristaps Porzingis is a talent upgrade, but where does that investment (not only in money -- but in touches and patience in terms of health/integration time) really get you?
This is a competitive league; every move has an opportunity cost. Tommy Sheppard and the front office seem content on binding their time until all the chips fall into place. Meanwhile, most of their other 29 teams are busy charting paths with actual ambition. The Wiz need to realize that time is a valuable resource in its own right. All of a sudden, you look up and...
Look at how much has changed over this 5-year period!! It's like the organization is Hiroo Onoda — unaware or unwilling to accept a new reality — and the Philippines in this analogy is a lonely treadmill.
Sooner or later, something has to give. Where would you say Washington currently falls on the spectrum from 2007–11 Pacers to 2007–11 Bobcats? I'd say somewhere between the 2004–08 76ers and 2007–11 Bobcats, which means an earnest rebuild is inevitable.
Of course, there's no one single foolproof strategy in the NBA. Tearing it down is never a sure thing -- just ask the post-Dwight Orlando Magic. But for every Pacers or 2014–18 Nuggets (blessed with a stroke of luck by drafting Nikola Jokic in the second round in 2014), there are countless examples on the other side such as the early-2000s Sonics or the Pistons in the 2010s.
Three other franchises currently reside in this purgatory: Charlotte, San Antonio, and Sacramento. The Hornets have LAMELO BALL, and the Spurs were stuck in a holding pattern during the twilight years of Gregg Popovich. Both organizations have a much superior collection of young talent now. Only the Kings — coincidentally 30th in the Future Power Rankings — are in a predicament as depressing.
If you approach it from Sheppard's point of view, perhaps everything makes sense. He's won the majority of his trades, (mostly) placated one of the best players in franchise history in Beal, and drafted well. However, this reasoning falls apart for two reasons: 1) These moves haven't coalesced into any long-term vision -- i.e. not seeing the forest from the trees, and 2) Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura are not franchise cornerstones.
This is a microcosm of the Wizards' situation as a whole. In his mind, these two (and Corey Kispert) will be ready to be big-time contributors on a serious team in the near future. He's the one who drafted them, after all.
It's time for the organization to embrace reality. We can get into specific player evaluations for another day, but the bottom line is...the pipeline is drier than the Sahara. The young (cost-controlled) winning reinforcements around a Beal-centric squad are not coming, and won't be until further notice. It's safe to say Tommy Sheppard is never going to find his version of "Paul George at #10."
And that folks, is why pain is coming down the line, whether we like it or not. But is anything really worse than the desultory numbness of the last five years that is Washington Wizards basketball? Time will tell if Sheppard has one last "big swing" in him this summer...