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Broom & Rubinstein Converse: When it comes to the Wizards, what is success?

Indiana Pacers v Washington Wizards Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Welcome to the latest edition of Broom and Rubinstein Converse, a series of articles in which Kevin Broom and Yanir Rubinstein chat about Wizards-related topics. If you like nerds discussing hoops — this one’s for you.

For previous installments of B&RC check out: July 2019 — part I, part II, April 2020 and May 2020, July 2020, August 2020, February 2021, November 2021, December 2021.

Yanir Rubinstein: It’s been a while since our last one.

Kevin Broom: Too long, my friend. Especially since the Wizards have produced so many indelible moments like...umm...gacking up 20-point first half leads on consecutive nights or blowing a 35-point lead and losing or...

YR: Don’t forget the great drafter Tommy Sheppard, who told Craig Hoffman he’d done well to land three rotation guys with four first round picks. One of whom they traded. At least the fans are clamoring for more BR&C content.

Let’s start here: Spencer Dinwiddie dissed the Wizards players and Kyle Kuzma dissed the coaching staff. Do we need a lot more information about the state of the franchise?

I mean I know your argument about the lack of talent, but isn’t the bigger problem the lack of direction and just lack of competitive spirit/inspiration? I mean Spencer did say it pretty succinctly.

KB: These are big subjects. The franchise’s direction is...odd. They want to win now, but they have thus far not made the kind of major moves that “win now” teams make. Ben Becker wrote three years ago that the Wizards needed to pick a lane. They still really haven’t. That’s on Ted Leonsis and Sheppard — they’re the ones making the decision to “win now” and pretend Bradley Beal is elite.

The lack of talent I talk about is due in part to behaving as if Beal is an elite player when he is not. They’ve chosen to make him The Franchise Player, which is a decision that guides other personnel decisions. The result is nearly everyone — including Beal — is pushed a role or two beyond where they should be on a competitive team.

The deficiency in competitiveness I think stems from their selection process. They want good people, which is a good idea. But they need some guys who burn to win.

YR: What about Wes Unseld Jr.? What’s his role in this?

KB: I wouldn’t have hired Unseld, and I was probably closer to identifying him as a significant problem earlier in the season. But I see what they’re doing schematically, and it’s actually pretty good. They have well-designed specials that they execute well. Their system includes some difficult actions to cover and gets the ball to players where they can do something with it (think Deni Avdija repeatedly getting the ball on the move going left to right), and their defense is decent despite having some indifferent defenders in the rotation.

And the coaching staff keeps adding wrinkles. For example, they’ve been running some Beal-Kispert empty side pick-and-rolls, which are devilish for opponents to defend.

It’s fair to question his ability to inspire and motivate, though I’d point out that the team has bounced back from a 10-game losing streak. And that defensive championship belt that seemed hokey when he introduced it seems to be something the players respect and covet. On the other hand, there are those two games where they lose after going up 20+ in the first half. That’s at least partially on the coach.

A great coach could probably coax a few more wins from this roster, but The Problem is the roster much more than the coach.

Let’s back up to the team’s “win now” philosophy. How can they actually make it work? And maybe we should define what “success” looks like, aside from absurdities like “contending” for the playoffs.

YR: As you say, let’s start by defining success, or just season goals in layman terms. Or perhaps it’s easier to define “failure.” I think that not making it to the playoffs should be considered failure. How about you?

KB: Missing the playoffs would be a failure — even if they make the play-in (although if they finish 10th and lose, they’ll still claim success). If you say you’re going to “win now,” and you have three guys you’d identify as cornerstones, not reaching the playoffs would have to qualify.

I’m also thinking about next year and the year after. Beal’s signed for five years. They want to retain Kuzma and Porzingis. Let’s say this core stays together for two or three more seasons. Do they claim success at making the playoffs? Winning a series? Reaching the conference finals?

My guess is they’d be satisfied with making the playoffs in two of three seasons, regardless of outcome.

YR: I have some doubts Kuzma stays here though for that long to carry out that thought experiment. I just doubt we’ll get to see the “Big 3” go together for three years. I’d guess Kuz might go for the typical Wizards contract-by-overpayment with the player-option and all. But putting that aside, I think there should be a season-independent definition of failure.

KB: In that case it’s playing in the playoffs in April 2023.

YR: Now that we defined success/failure, it’s inevitable to move on to the A word the Wizards don’t like...

KB: You mean All-Star?

YR: lol, no. Accountability.

KB: Say more. As a long-time Wizards watcher, I’m unfamiliar with the context in the NBA.

Seriously, Leonsis and Sheppard set the tone. The team’s revenue streams largely insulate Leonsis from local fans delivering financial consequences. Last season, the team was 23rd in attendance and made a $90 million profit. They could have zeroed out gate revenue and still turned a $40+ million profit.

So accountability probably has to come from the day-to-day operations group — coaches and players. Beal would be a logical candidate, but he doesn’t seem to be that kind of leader. And the front office seems to prefer nice guys who get along well with others. Which is fine.

But in competitive situations, sometimes you need someone willing to be the a-hole — willing to be the person who calls BS on his colleagues and demands they do better. Now, that person can be annoying. That person can get on his or her colleagues’ nerves. But that’s part of accountability.

YR: That was Spencer Dinwiddie (to some degree). Who then got shipped.

KB: My next big question to you is: How can they actually make it work?

YR: Look, the NBA is entertainment. The Wizards are consistently packing more than three quarters of the arena. People are having fun, bringing their families, enjoying the T-shirt toss, the guys who come with trampolines and dunk, the kiss-cam... The Wizards are a success-story: they’re making money and delivering entertainment while also having a guaranteed income from the league and at the same time subsidies from the city, and a sky-rocketing valuation from year-to-year, as well as a great real-estate asset that they rent for concerts etc....

KB: You’re sidetracking.

YR: Maybe. Or maybe we and the fans are the distraction for Monumental? We can clamor all day for a championship, but perhaps the end-goal of the franchise is to be part of a real-estate/entertainment portfolio.

KB: I think that’s exactly right. In terms of on-court product, the “build from the middle” strategy can work — if you can hit on draft picks. The team looks radically different — present and future — with two different selections in the last four drafts.

Your point about Monumental hits the bullseye. I think Leonsis is having fun running a sports and entertainment business that rakes in revenue and has him doing deals with amazing people and attending some of the best events on the planet. Monumental is an innovative and successful enterprise. It’s just that we’re stuck rooting for and analyzing the crappiest product he has on offer.

YR: ‘Nuff said.