While Matt Modderno and I poked a little fun at the Wizards penchant for almost getting terrific players — Donovan Mitchell being the latest — on his Bleav in Wizards podcast, the truth is the Wizards were never a serious option. The reason is simple: they don’t have the assets to swing a deal of that magnitude.
What the Mitchell traded underscored for me is the opportunity the Wizards missed with Bradley Beal. The deal — interesting young players, a rookie with potential, three first round picks, and two pick swaps — is exactly the kind of trade the Wizards should have made with Beal two years ago.
This isn’t revisionist history. Many observers, including myself, thought trading Beal was the smart thing to do. He was very good but not at the level of the truly elite players who form the foundations of championship contenders. And it was clear that keeping him would require a gargantuan salary almost guaranteed to become a bad contract from the start.
None of this should be construed as criticism of Beal. He’s a good guy who’s worked hard and come closer to maxing out his potential than any other player selected by the franchise since maybe Wes Unseld.
What I’m looking at is the strategic decision-making of the franchise’s leaders, Ted Leonsis and Tommy Sheppard. Because it’s hard not to look at what Danny Ainge has done so far in Utah without recognizing how unserious the Wizards are about putting a high-quality team on the floor.
Remember Leonsis’ 10-point rebuilding plan? Here are a few relevant excerpts:
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. Once you have your answer, develop the game plan to try to REALLY win a championship. Always run away from experts that say, “We are just one player away.” Recognize there is no easy and fast systemic fix.
Once you decide to rebuild—bring the house down to the foundation—be consistent with your plan—and with your asks—we always sought to get “a pick and a prospect” in all of our trades. We believed that volume would yield better results than precision. We decided to trade multiple stars at their prime or peak to get a large volume of young players. Young players will get better as they age, so you have built in upside. Youngsters push vets to play better to keep their jobs, and they stay healthier, and they are more fun—less jaded by pro sports.
Commit to building around the draft. Invest in scouting, development, and a system. Articulate that system and stay with it so that all players feel comfortable— know the language— know what is expected of them— read the Oriole Way*. It worked and it is a great tutorial. Draft players that fit the system, not the best player. Draft the best player for the system. Don’t deviate or get seduced by agents, media demands, or by just stats or hype. Envision how this player will slide into your system.
Maybe pay maximum money and give every perk for the expensive decline of a very good player who’s been with your team for a decade will be in the Leonsis 11-point plan.
Of course, I re-read the 10-point plan and recognize there’s little evidence to indicate it was ever operative with the Wizards. Over the years, the Wizards have made an array of “one-player away” kinds of moves, have never shown seriousness about competing for a championship, and have never exhibited the kind of analytically driven brutal honesty Leonsis said was necessary.
Meanwhile, Utah looks like it might be following that blueprint. Two seasons ago, the Jazz had the league’s best record. But after multiple failures in the playoffs, Utah’s leadership recognized the team wasn’t going to win a championship, so they turned their best players into a mountain of future assets.
Now comes the hard part for the Jazz — turning all those assets into a quality team. That’s the point of amassing so many picks, though. They can make trades, make bets on multiple prospects, and even miss on a few.
The Wizards? They have a narrow path to making the playoffs. There’s no realistic road to being even as good as the Jazz team Ainge just broke up. But in classic #SoWizards style, they’re trying to “win now”.