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The Wizards’ season of relegation ends with a whimper

The status quo remains undefeated in DC.

Washington Wizards Bradley Beal Contract Extension Press Conference Photo by Avi Gerver/NBAE via Getty Images

Relegation. In England’s highest level of football, the Premier League, teams outside the top 20 in the standings risk being relegated, demoted to a lower level, unable to compete with the heavyweights of their sport. Source: Wikipedia and Ted Lasso.

To the business side of the house, relegation means a decrease in revenue from the league’s media deal as well as losing players with contract options that save them from getting stuck on a lower division team. With few high-level opponents coming to play in your stadium, ticket sales suffer. Some clubs can’t sustain business operations of a 1st division payroll for lower division revenue and are forced into administration, an admission they can’t pay their debts. Relegation has far-reaching consequences. It’s an extreme fate.

Of course, in the NBA (or MLB, NHL, etc) there are no such penalties, no competitive requirements for franchises to meet to earn their share of the league’s revenue. It shows!

Discussion of how the Washington Wizards under the control of the Leonsis family and Monumental basketball have failed to finish with a winning record since the 2017-18 season has to take this into account. The business is profitable regardless. Spending more on a new GM, new head coach, or leveraging more assets to build around Supermax Bradley Beal isn’t directly linked to winning. If it were, we’re assured, the team would spare no expense. While fans and media will react to new contracts for Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma, the overall salary number for the team will rise only so much as the luxury tax threshold does. Its all in the budget.

How did we get here?

The Wizards failed to have an All-Star representative, despite Kristaps Porzingis’ best efforts. NBA All-Star weekend has evolved beyond the game. The dunk contest and 3pt shooting competition bring their own bragging rights. The full list of festivities now includes a G League component, Rising Stars Challenge and a Skills Competition.

Washington failed to have any representation during the entire weekend of events. Neither of their eligible lottery picks made the cut for the Rising Stars Challenge. That’s two straight years without a 1st or 2nd-year player worthy of the game. Corey Kispert, having the kind of deep shooting season we all hoped for, was passed over for the 3pt contest in favor of the Knicks Julius Randle who was already in town. During the league’s midseason spectacle weekend, the Washington Wizards were invisible.

I couldn’t help but think of Wizards President of Basketball Operations Tommy Sheppard as I watched NBA All-Star Weekend. It felt like each event included players he passed on and draft picks he missed. The Rising Stars featured Thunder rookie Jalen Williams, having possibly the second-best season of any rookie (14pts, 4 rebs, 3 assists per game) who was picked two slots after Wizards guard Johnny Davis.

The dunk contest included the Pelicans’ Trey Murphy III, a 6’9 multifaceted forward blossoming into a true threat in New Orleans. Murphy, heavily scouted by the Wizards, was taken two slots after Corey Kispert. Murphy finished his second year at 14 points, 4 rebounds per game while shooting 41 percent from the three-point line.

The most painful watch had to be All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton. According to Haliburton, the Wizards called him on draft night to tell him they were taking him at 9, only to select Deni Avdija instead. Avdija has yet to establish himself as a starter in the league. Haliburton finished his historic year averaging 20 points, 10 assists per game and shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

Yet with none of his guys representing the Generals Wizards, it’s doubtful Mr. Leonsis noticed any of this.

When the GM throws up his hands, blaming injuries, it’s bullshit. When Sheppard grades himself and the staff INCOMPLETE remember why this roster is too thin to sustain the slightest setback. Tommy and his staff are unable to identify and select the best player available in the lottery… and beyond. We can’t leave out the wasted pics on Admiral Schofield and Zay Todd either. We have four years of draft picks to grade without a bonafide, no-doubt, starting caliber player. It shows everywhere, including the shallow front court.

The front office declined to address the frontcourt hole left after dealing former lottery pick Rui Hachimura and his 13 points, 4 rebounds per game to the Lakers. It may not sound like a ton, but when you’re regularly giving up 120-130 points every double-digit scorer is welcome.

This compounded the frontcourt depth issues that arose after backup center Daniel Gafford was moved into the starting lineup. Avdija moved to the bench. If the starting center moves to forward, the backup center is now the starter, and the 3rd string is now the backup. I love Taj Gibson and only wish he could have stayed in the role he was signed for, not second team center. The team never acknowledged the shift in terms of personnel. They never planned for the two big lineup beyond Gafford and KP. Whoops!

Instead, the front office provided coach Unseld with Vernon Carey Jr and Isaiah Todd. Based on the frequency of their run it’s safe to say Coach Wes viewed them as unplayable. Carey, like Jerome Robinson before him, was later waived to make better use of the roster spot. Todd started in the last game of the season, helping secure a loss to the Rockets and tie Indiana for the 6th pick in the draft.

Back off the court, the league took more direct action in late February. The home office demoted the Wizards’ game vs the Hawks from a national broadcast window on NBA TV to regional network coverage only. The nation would be spared from accidentally watching Washington basketball.

The Wizards answered the post All-Star break bell with a slow motion implosion and injuries. Despite a favorable schedule, their play was uninspired. Injuries will take the blame but no one watching saw a team with the capability of contending for anything other than a play in Hail Mary. Despite their best efforts in the buyout market, Russell Westbrook’s Hall of Fame drive wasn’t walking through that door.

On April 2, following a loss to the New York Knicks, the hint of the suggestion of the Wizards scrapping their way into the Play-In Tournament died a quiet, inevitable death. The synchronicity shouldn’t be lost on fans. Mr. Leonsis fired then-President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld on April 2, 2019, after that season’s squad was eliminated from playoff contention.

Since that time we’ve barely heard the criteria (making the playoffs) applied to Tommy the way Ted finally applied it to Ernie. The franchise has missed the playoffs in 3 of Tommy’s 4 seasons as GM. No matter. A single 8th-seed finish was enough to warrant a promotion to President of Basketball Operations and a contract extension.

We’ve seen this movie before. It sucks. Ownership and the front office continue to make the same mistakes, showing minimal signs of strategic thought on the level that the modern NBA requires. Fans and observers are left with the conclusion that winning is discretional.

Washington is not a free agent destination franchise, despite what Sheppard laughably said in his end-of-season media session. We knew that already. Relegated from the NBA’s premier weekend, demoted from national broadcast, and out of sight entirely until the NBA Draft Lottery in May. Is ownership capable of being honest with themselves about how far the franchise’s reputation has fallen? As long as the media rights, gambling and other payouts keep hitting their bank account, does it matter?