The Wizards have some major questions this offseason. Who’s going to replace Tommy Sheppard? How can they upgrade the roster? Will they ever hit on a draft pick?
The most important is one only the team’s owner Ted Leonsis can answer: Just what the hell is this team trying to do?
In the 13 seasons since Leonsis took control of the Wizards, the public goal has been to make the playoffs. Somewhere along the way, via some verbal sleight of hand, that morphed into contend for the playoffs.
The problem, of course, is that in the NBA it’s not a meaningful goal. A minimally competent and maybe cynical general manager can patch together enough decent veterans, and a good enough coach to get there most years.
Making the playoffs might be a stepping stone for a team with a core of talented players young enough to have a future together. Reaching the postseason by trading future assets to plug holes is technically meeting the goal, but doesn’t advance the franchise toward anything greater. In the NBA, that’s called the treadmill of mediocrity — not a championship contender, and not bad enough to get a high draft pick that more reliably yields a true franchise player.
The Leonsis “make the playoffs” goal may be informed by his experience as a hockey owner. In the NHL, making the playoffs gives the team a chance to make a run and win the Stanley Cup if the goalie gets hot enough. In a lower scoring game where one player can have such an outsized impact on the result, being good enough to get lucky now and then is at least somewhat reasonable.
But the NBA is different. Luck still matters — every champion in every sport ever has gotten some good luck along the way. Relying on it is something else. It’s wishful thinking disguised as a plan.
I’m not sure the Wizards even have that much of a plan. For the past 13 years, making the playoffs has been dangled as the pinnacle of success. No one has talked seriously about building a team that could contend for a championship.
All of this is a kinda longish way of saying the Wizards are on that treadmill with no apparent exit. They’ve lavished the kind of money and status typically reserved for the game’s elite players on good-to-very-good players. They’ve missed repeatedly on draft picks. They’ve repeatedly made decisions that seem to suggest an organization-wide inability to truthfully and accurately assess their own players.
The result? A team they thought was built to win finished 35-47 and was out of contention in the final 10 days of the season. They’re bumping against the luxury tax line with a roster laden with decent veterans who are at best unlikely to improve, and are at the stage where they’ll begin to decline.
The franchise’s current status as also-ran is directly because of its meaningless goals. In parting with Sheppard and announcing he would hire an executive from outside the organization, Leonsis has an opportunity to reboot the franchise strategy and initiate a process that could yield different results.
The first step is choosing something meaningful to pursue — like contending for a championship. (Better: winning a championship.) That doesn’t necessarily mean tearing the team apart in a Philadelphia-like process.
If for some reason Leonsis wants to make a run with Beal, Porzingis and Kuzma over the next four years, then commit to it. Trade picks and young players for a top-shelf player, build depth with veterans, and pay the luxury tax. See what happens. The team can initiate a Process in 2027.
The team could also continue its build from the middle, which is at least theoretically viable. Consider how different the team and its future look if they used their draft picks to select Tyrese Haliburton and Jalen Williams, for example. Or Haliburton and Tari Eason. It’s the difference between making the playoffs with a realistic path to improving (even with an aging “star”), and missing the play-in with getting better next season predicated on nothing more than hope.
The point is to keep making draft picks, but do it better. Hit on the next Haliburton or Williams and give the team both a present and a future.
Or, maybe if the goal is a championship, the best strategy is to trade Beal, Porzingis, Kuzma and any other players that interest other teams for an arsenal of future assets.
My point isn’t to pinpoint a strategy but to highlight the team’s non-serious goals during Leonsis’ tenure. Goals drive strategy. Barring blind luck, the Wizards won’t compete for a championship if the annual goal is making (or contending) for the playoffs. If a GM can keep his or her job by reaching a modest goal each year, there’s no reason to take risks that might be necessary to chase a higher one. That’s human nature.
And perhaps that human nature is part of why Leonsis has seemingly persisted in setting modest goals. The NBA’s financial structure virtually guarantees profits. Player costs are a fixed percentage of league revenues. National broadcast revenues are shared. Staying below the luxury tax line assures the team an additional multi-million dollar payout after the season.
Why spend more on the uncertain prospect of building a contender when you can be profitable by having a team just good enough to make the playoffs at least sometimes?
These are questions for Leonsis. Is the money enough? Is access to other business people and non-basketball opportunities sufficient? Or is there a way to build an excellent on court product that will excite fans, galvanize a region, and generate profits?