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Michael Winger and Will Dawkins are intent on changing the Wizards’ culture

The Wizards’ front office plans to remake the franchise a step at a time. That’s a good start.

Michael Winger Introductory Press Conference
Washington Wizards general manager Will Dawkins and team president Michael Winger at their introductory press conference in June 2023.
Photo by Kenny Giarla/NBAE via Getty Images

Washington Wizards team president Michael Winger and General Manager Will Dawkins took questions from reporters earlier this week as the NBA prepares for the calendar flip from transaction season to actual basketball. Here are a few comments worthy of scrutiny:

From Winger:

We have we have a vision for the team. It is ambitious and it is a very heavy lift. We want to build an organization that develops and can support a sustainably great team. We don’t want to be a flash in the pan. We don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. We want to build the right way.

We’ve studied all the teams in the league historically and currently that have done it what we would characterize as the right way and it is a very heavy lift. Hard decisions. A lot of patience. An intense focus on player development. An intense focus on research.

These are pleasantly frank thoughts from someone in Wizards leadership. For decades, the franchise has peddled false hope — often coupled with downright ridiculous sophistry (“contend for the playoffs,” for example). Winger is clear that building a great team is difficult.

Dawkins

I would say player development has shifted around the league and what that looks like it’s no longer one coach, one player out there on the court. It’s a holistic approach making sure that people are taken care of. Everything they need before they even get on the court. So your family’s taken care of. Nutrition. Performance. Mental. Everything that encompasses player development we’re going to level up and make it the best in sports.

And Michael will get tired of me coming back to him asking for for more resources to pour into the staff as well as the players, but we know what it looks like and we want to get it to there. We want this to be a place where people want to come. Where players want to come, staff want to come work because they know they’re going to get better and they’re going to be supported while they’re here.

The player development comments taken together are an acknowledgement that it’s vital and challenging. Helping youngsters learn and grow into high-quality NBA players is a challenge, in part because there’s no one solution that fits everyone. People learn in different ways, at different paces, and respond to different inputs.

It’s encouraging that in Winger’s comment, player development and research are paired. He acknowledges they don’t have all the answers, and that part of the team’s ethos will be constant learning.

Dawkins’ thoughts are testament to how far teams have progressed in this area over the years, as well as how far behind the Wizards have been. When Kwame Brown was the top overall pick, “development” wasn’t much more than having an assistant coach as his assigned mentor.

In Dawkins’ construction, the organization should be structured to support players, coaches, and staff as people with lives beyond what happens on the floor, as well as in their roles with the franchise.

More from Dawkins:

If we look at some of the summer league development guys have had individually, they’ve made small incremental gains and they’ve been able to stack those gains to make them bigger gains. I think that’s going to be the measure of success individually and as a team throughout the year. We’re going to identify those small wins, we’re going to stack those small wins, and make sure that we’re searching for those throughout the year.

This one feels mostly like optimistic puffery — the GM’s variant on the annual “best shape of my life” recitations. It’s nice to think players made incremental gains that will stack into bigger gains. The reality is that several of their younger players need to take major steps. And, what ultimately matters is how those incremental gains compare to the similar kinds of gains made by players for other teams around the league.

That said, it’s good they’ll be hunting for those “small wins” throughout the season. That’s a critical part of teaching and developing applied skills. It’s also important to keep focus on comparisons with counterparts around the league.

More from Dawkins on expectations:

We don’t put limitations on players, young or old but we also don’t want to project too much. We’ll have internal measures, internal standards that people will have to live up to for sure. But when we go through and do individual goals with players it will be things that they are aware of, things that they contribute to, things that are attainable, things that can be recited, and things that can be tracked. So at all times they know where they’re at, and they know their goals. But I think it’ll be closer to a week to week, month to month approach.

This is great stuff. First, because it’s been awhile since the Wizards had executives who either talked down to fans and reporters, or who didn’t have a deep understanding of how to build a successful team. And second, because what Dawkins describes are proven methods for achieving success. Set meaningful goals that are achievable and measurable. Communicate them clearly so that everyone’s on the same page. Track and measure constantly.

This kind of process should quash the need for team meetings where a veteran player goes around the room and has everyone articulate their role. It should end players (and coaches) being confused about what they’re supposed to be doing.

Winger discussing why the team is delving into the rebuild they don’t want to call a rebuild:

It was a function of conversations with the players that had finished the season with the team, with the coaching staff, and with some of the the front office personnel. Really the analysis was can we — in pretty short order assemble a legitimate and sustainable contender around the nucleus that we had. And I think through hard analysis and difficult conversations, the conclusion was no. And I think the players concluded the same, and so ultimately once we had those conversations with the players, with Wes, and the leadership team, we all sort of came to the difficult conclusion that we probably can’t put together a long-term sustainable contender with just what we had at the time. And so pretty early in the process prior to the draft is when we came to that conclusion.

Kudos to Winger for being much more diplomatic and respectful to the previous regime than I might have been in his spot. While I believe some of the conversations were difficult, I doubt the analysis was hard. Many, including me, had come to the same conclusion several years ago. It’s good the new executive team finally got to the same place.

Hat tip to Wizards play-by-play voice Chris Miller for asking about evaluating players without preconceived notions. Dawkins did a nice job of conveying that players will have a fresh opportunity to make an impression.

“We’re not going to hold players to what they did in the past,” Dawkins said. “The rearview mirror has been ripped off.”

Winger echoed the sentiment: “We’re giving everybody a fair look,” he said. “The good stuff, we will respect and carry forward. Anything they would tell you themselves I could’ve done better...we’re ignoring that. It’s not relevant.”

There was much more, but to me the most important thing was the calm professionalism and thoughtfulness Winger and Dawkins exuded. The subtext (and sometimes the direct message) in every comment was that they’re paying attention to “the right way” of doing things.

Another message that came through loud and clear: the era of the Wizards behaving as if players are doing the team a favor by putting on a uniform is over.

Dawkins on what they’re looking for:

...[P]layers who are serious craftsmen. They take the game seriously. They’re invested in their own development. They are guys who are rooted in doing the work. They know what it takes and are willing to build good habits. It’s players who can really buy into team dynamics and understand how they can use themselves, and how important it is to sacrifice for your teammate on the court.

We’ll look for guys who are advanced processors. Who can know the game, speak the game and see it early. We all operate within 24 seconds. For those that can process information and think quickly and move the ball to a spot to force the defense to shift to have the advantage. And defensively the same way. If you can anticipate and see things ahead of time.

Obviously the game is changing. You gotta find players who can stay in the game and play on both ends and have versatility and athleticism.

In the Wizards organization Winger and Dawkins are building, everyone’s expected to work. They’ll invest heavily in helping players improve, but players are responsible for progressing and succeeding.

This is the culture change I thought they needed when they parted ways with Ernie Grunfeld. This is why I thought Tommy Sheppard was a poor choice to fill Grunfeld’s role — as the second highest ranking executive for 16 years, he’d been a key leader in building the culture they had.

But in the category of “better late than never,” Winger and Dawkins are in charge. Rip off that rearview mirror and enjoy the show.

Watch the entire press conference: