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Is a new era of Wizards management going to Lead to a true new era?

A Q&A with Robert Flom with 213 Hoops.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Washington Wizards Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Late last week, the Washington Wizards announced Michael Winger as President of Monumental Basketball. The hiring stoked excitement and optimism about the Wizards future. Some of that could be due to the accolades Winger has received from around the league, and some may be the pivot away from two decades of Ernie Grunfeld and Tommy Sheppard.

What exactly is Monumental Basketball getting? I reached out to Robert Flom, who covers the Los Angeles Clippers for 213 Hoops, for his insight on the newest president of Monumental Basketball.

Osman: Rob, thanks for joining us. You’ve covered the Clippers but I know you’ve paid attention to the Wizards over the years. I think you can appreciate the level of excitement Wizards’ fans have over the Michael Winger hiring after 20 years of Ernie Grunfeld and Tommy Sheppard. To us, it’s as much about bringing in a new voice and direction to this organization. What can you tell us about Michael Winger? How did the Clippers front office work, and how impactful was Michael in that role?

Rob: Hey Osman! Thanks for bringing me on here. The Clippers front office has, since it was redone in 2017 with the additions of Michael Winger, Trent Redden, and Mark Hughes, and the shift from Doc Rivers to Lawrence Frank as chief decision-maker, operated somewhat secretively and very collaboratively. That’s not to say they never leak, of course, but the Clippers’ front office definitely seemed to act more as a unit, with a lot of open dialogue, and less clear demarcation on who did what.

As for Winger though, he was brought in as a salary cap and negotiation expert, and while it’s impossible to parse who has done exactly what over the years, the Clippers have made some very good positive-value trades and some clever subtle cap maneuverings. Some of those examples include the signing of Rodney McGruder and trade for Moe Harkless, neither of whose names maybe inspire a ton of conversation but whose moves helped the Clippers make further deals. The Clippers have had some questionable moves over the years, but have generally made positive asset impact trades and operated well within cap limitations since Winger joined the team.

Osman: The LA market is a different market than Washington, D.C. No matter what Washington does, they may never be in position to lure a Kawhi/PG package. That said, the Clippers front office clearly did a lot of work to be in that position in the first place, pivoting off of Lob City with good trades and draft picks. Given his experience as part of the collaborative effort with the Clippers, what’s your best guess as to how he’ll tackle the situation with the Wizards?

Rob: The knowledge that DC is not as much of a free agent destination as Los Angeles should absolutely play into Winger’s decision-making for the Wizards. My guess, based on the Wizards’ record the past couple years, initial reporting around Winger’s hire, and what I know of the Clippers’ FO, is that a pivot towards a rebuild is coming.

If you can’t attract superstars in free agency, don’t have the assets to land them in a trade, and don’t have any on your roster, the only way to get them is through the draft. And the best way to land a superstar is to tear down the existing roster and accumulate as many picks as possible to try to get some lottery luck. Now, the revised lottery odds make it tougher to get a top three pick, but my guess would still be that Winger looks around, sees where the Wizards are, and decides to move on from most of their veteran players to get picks and younger pieces. The Clippers didn’t rebuild in Winger’s tenure, but their nailing of one of the two lottery picks they did have in his reign — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in 2018 — was the critical factor in their obtaining Paul George. The Thunder might make that deal even without a prospect of SGA’s caliber, but they might not have too. I think Winger, the cap guru, will try to keep the cap sheets clean and refresh the Wizards’ roster in short order.

Osman: I’m glad you brought up the draft. It’s been a sore subject here especially over Tommy’s tenure. The Wizards had three lottery picks and the 15th selection over his tenure and we still don’t know if there’s a single long-term starter in the group (my hunch is if we don’t know, we actually do). What can you tell us about how the Clippers approached the draft during Winger’s time there and what that might mean for the eighth pick this year? Is there a player that seems like a Clippers type of pick rumored in that range? Would Winger consider a trade down or trade up?

Rob: The Clippers’ draft history since Winger arrived in August 2017 (so after the 2017 Draft) has been wildly inconsistent. You have an A+ pick in SGA at 11/12 in 2018 (the Clippers traded up from 12 to 11 to get him) followed by an absolute F in Jerome Robinson (yikes) at 13. Then there was the awesome Terance Mann pick at 48 in 2019 — but non-Clippers fans forget they traded a future first to get the 27th pick and select Mfiondu Kabengele, a bust. The 2020 draft was a disaster with Daniel Oturu at 33 ahead of a handful of good NBA players, and then a mixed-at-best 2021 with Keon Johnson in the first (traded shortly into his rookie season), Jason Preston at 33 (bust for the Clips), and Brandon Boston Jr. at 51 (good pick).

There are a few trends to take note of. One is that the Clippers repeatedly traded up or into the draft to select guys they liked (SGA, Kabengele, Keon, and others). Another is that along those lines, the Clippers were not afraid to “reach” for players they liked — they were confident in their scouting and interviewing (and maybe they shouldn’t have). The third is that the Clippers, since the new regime in 2017, have drafted heavily on personality, mindset, and composure. They haven’t necessarily targeted “tough” guys, but have really gone after hard workers, consummate professionals, and overall good personalities rather than talent or analytics. Whether that was something Winger — more of a numbers guy but also a lawyer — was an advocate for is unknown.

I would not be shocked at all if Winger wanted to trade up in the draft “to get his guy” as it were, though I think it might be tough to get much higher than four in this draft.

Osman: Rob, I appreciate the time you’ve taken. The latest report from Marc Stein is that Will Dawkins is expected to emerge as a strong candidate to join Michael Winger in In D.C., you would assume in the GM role. Given the history here and the general feeling of malaise around the organization for, well, decades, how optimistic should Wizards fans be about what Michael Winger might be able to accomplish here? Is there potentially light finally at the end of the tunnel?

Rob: My pleasure! Thanks again for having me! I’m not as familiar with Dawkins, but he’s another OKC executive, and they’ve historically had a well-regarded front office. It’s funny, because my nickname is “Eeyore” in Clippers’ circles due to my cynicism on them, but I do think Wizards’ fans should be fairly optimistic. While they’re not in a great spot, they have a couple young players that are at least decent NBA players, they have a mid-lottery pick in a strong class, and I do have a lot of faith in Winger to get the Wizards on track. His being someone completely outside of the Wizards’ orbit is a huge positive for a franchise that has been treading water for years, and it seems he has buy-in from Leonsis to make whatever moves he wants. I do think the Wizards should rebuild, and I believe that Winger will operate on a similar wavelength. If he does, it will all be about getting the right trade packages — which he has done in the past — and making the right draft picks. The latter is the biggest question mark for me, but hopefully an impact will be felt as soon as this draft and free agency.