What Will Winning Look Like for Washington Wizards?

Though fans might not believe it amid some recent dark days, Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis does know something about winning.

One of his greatest strengths has been loyalty,  as well as giving people time to do their job. Unfortunately for the Wizards, that loyalty to bad decision-makers, injured players and dwindling opportunities has also been his undoing.

And that is why Leonsis needs to instruct his new staff to trade away John Wall, and maybe Bradley Beal… To move on and start fresh.

Though his NBA franchise hasn’t won 50 games since he took over a decade ago—nor has it reached that win total since the 1978-79 season when it won 54, back when its moniker was the Bullets—Leonsis has overseen successful pro sports franchises in other fields. As part of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, his organizations have recently broken the ‘DC Sports Curse’ that seemed to elude the city of a national championship.

His NHL Washington Capitals lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time in the 2017-18 season. A year later, the Wizards’ sister franchise Washington Mystics won the WNBA title for the first time in its 22-year history. The build-up to the Mystics’ win, however, began with a series of tough but important decisions, including moving on from All-Star Stefanie Dolson, (who Washington drafted after she won an NCAA title).

It was surely tough to trade away a player the franchise invested so much into (and vice versa), but it helped the Mystics reach the mountain top.

Obviously, Leonsis has yet to see such a break for the Wizards, but it’s not that he hasn’t been trying the right things. 

Jun 12, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis speaks during the Stanley Cup championship parade and celebration on the National Mall. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

His ownership coincided with the franchise drafting Kentucky point guard John Wall in 2010. It was important to build around the young Wall, who was then considered the fastest player in the league and was clearly a star. Now-former GM Ernie Grunfeld drafted Bradley Beal and Tomas Satoransky, showing an ability to spot elite and international talent. 

While it was slow going, Leonsis’ loyalty to Grunfeld and faith in the team’s talent helped build a competitive roster. In 2014, the Wizards finished with its best record in nearly a decade (44-38), making the playoffs and winning the first round.

The following season, they added Paul Pierce, who offered the experience and confidence to theoretically make them a tougher out. However, after advancing beyond the first round again (and going 46-36), it all came to a halt when John Wall fractured his hand and missed several games during the next series. Washington was knocked out by the Atlanta Hawks in 6.

That all probably sounds like fairly benign accomplishments. And to some extent they are. But let’s not forget that it seemed like the Wizards were at least on the right track to building a perpetual playoff team again at the time. (They had made the playoffs four straight times from 2004-08 as well.)

Thereafter, not a season has gone by where Wall hasn’t missed some time, whether it be from major injuries, minor surgeries, rehab, rest or recovery. Wall has caught all the bad breaks while the Wizards can’t seem to catch the good ones. 

Nonetheless, the combined leadership of Wall and Beal mixed with the direction of new, proven playoff coach Scott Brooks offered renewed hope in 2016-17. The Wizards finished with their best record in nearly four decades (49-33), yet once again were ousted in the second round. The following season saw the injury bug strike Wall once more.

Jan 25, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA;Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks and Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) high five during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Thus, if you move beyond all the kneejerk Twitter outrage, it becomes a little easier to understand why Leonsis kept the much-maligned Grunfeld in his post so long… And why the team has so far refused to give up on Wall while continuing to invest in Beal. 

All those setbacks were fairly freak things that neither Grunfeld nor Wall had any doing in. And, when healthy, Washington had done at least modest damage in the playoffs. It’s the year-to-year consistency that has been most frustrating, along with Grunfeld’s penchant for overpaying. (More on that later.) 

And while a good workman will never blame his tools, greater sympathy can be afforded when the tools are not always available.

With Wall out for this whole season and Beal breaking his iron man streak of 194 consecutive games played (due to issues with his knee), 2019-20 might end up being one of the more frustrating campaigns even as Grunfeld was finally replaced with Tommy Sheppard this offseason. 

The Wizards finished 11th in the Eastern Conference last year with a record of 32-50, and they might do slightly better this time around. But the franchise will be hoping that next season can include a deep playoff run, what with the slow re-introduction of Wall now that Beal has elected to extend his contract.

The team has committed to them both for so long that it would take a tough decision to move on from the pairing.  What’s more, Wall has a player option to earn more than $47 million in 2022-23, according to Sportac. That one is highly unlikely to be turned down given his injury history. 

The issue is paying for talent to surround him. 

The only tweaks possible this season within such difficult salary cap circumstances have already been made. This especially included adding stretch big Davis Bertāns during the summer from the San Antonio Spurs. The subject of trade rumors before the recent deadline, the Latvian Laser is averaging career-high minutes, points, rebounds and assists, with shooting percentages of 43, 42 and 86. 

Dec 5, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards forward Davis Bertans (42) shoots the ball over Philadelphia 76ers guard Matisse Thybulle (22) in the fourth quarter at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Wizards will have to pay to keep the pending free agent, but shelling out more than the $7 million Bertans is owed this season will be difficult for an already cash-strapped team, especially if they are unlikely to make a run towards the Conference Finals next season.

However, moving on from Ian Mahinmi’s terrible contract will help. The big man was a beneficiary of the NBA’s big salary cap spike in 2016 and the Wizards offered him $64 million over four seasons, possibly thinking that the cap would only continue to rise.

Washington wasn’t the only team that got hurt by this miscalculation, but Mahinmi has been the third highest-paid player on the team this year and the 14th best-paid center in the league, according to Hoops Hype. Of course, he’s also just the 68th best big man in plus-minus (-1.5) and the 44th best scorer at his position.

He has been a wasted asset, but that contract finally finishes at the end of this season, which could help the team re-sign a positive contributor.

A shrewd move helped bring Bertāns into the fold last summer and showed that new GM Tommy Sheppard does things in a slightly different, more collaborative way than Grunfeld.

One of the last useful decisions by his predecessor was trading away Markieff Morris before the deadline last season, which gave the Wizards a Traded Player Exception, allowing the team to absorb Bertāns’ $7 million expiring deal. The three-team deal sent away Washington’s Aaron White draft rights to the Brooklyn Nets while the San Antonio Spurs received DeMarre Carroll.

Bertāns has improved to the point where he could be a top-five option on a good team, and with Mahinmi unlikely to receive a contract like his current one, that money could be spent on the three-point marksman. The Latvian could help a good Wizards team with playoff hopes next year, or a rebuilding team that needs a solid professional to show younger players the way.

At present, Washington is just four wins out of the playoffs, with the Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets hot on their heels. Even if they do make it, being the Milwaukee Bucks’ first victim is hardly inspiring.  

Therefore, this summer presents a number of questions about whether one of the most expensive and badly constructed teams (contract-wise) wants to keep its core together. They will hopefully have everyone healthy next season, but how much damage can they realistically do? How much winning is possible?

The Wizards have a few young pieces they could focus on if they wanted to kickstart the rebuild, including Rui Hachimura and Troy Brown, as well as Admiral Schofield and Thomas Bryant. All have shown flashes of potential.

Oct 1, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura (8) talks with Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard (R) during training camp at Medstar Wizards Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Leonsis should show patience with Sheppard and Brooks as well. Neither has been able to work with a full complement of players yet, but both have shown the ability to work with what they have. Brooks has kept the team competitive and pivoted to being a three-point-hungry outfit that at least maintains an identity. Sheppard has been turning over a lot of stones to find players who can contribute.

So, as has always been the case, this comes back to Wall and Beal.

On the one hand, Washington probably has too many years left with both being paid big money to pivot entirely toward being a youthful up and comer. If Wall is fully healthy and the team reaches the playoffs next season, they might have a better idea of who can be the new piece to build around. 

On the other hand, Wall’s long history of injuries and game built on speed doesn’t bode well for a player turning 30 before the start of next season.

Even if the Wizards can reach a stage in the next few seasons where they can be a contender, it’s hard to imagine Wall being at the center of the charge. He has played a little less than 70 percent of his possible career games, and probably can’t be relied upon going forward. 

If Washington moves on from Wall right, the return for him will not be great. It will also be a tough move to do so after 10 years leading the franchise, and few teams will want to pay an aging, slowing, past-his-prime player that type of money for at least two more seasons. But Leonsis has proof that making the tough decisions pays off.

Feb 28, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; Injured Washington Wizards guard John Wall (R) talks with Wizards guard Bradley Beal (L) on the bench against the Golden State Warriors in the fourth quarter at Capital One Arena. The Warriors won 109-101. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Beal is just about young enough to have a future with the next core in Washington. And while he hasn’t given any signs that he wants to leave, his frustration about not being named an All-Star shows that he wants to be competitive. If he doesn’t want to stick around to help develop the next generation, it might be time to think about trading him this summer and hitting the full reset button.

Beal’s value will probably never be higher as he approaches his career peak.

Nobody is quite sure what winning looks like with this team, but whether it’s with a (hopefully) healthy All-Star duo trying to build market value before the 2021 Trade Deadline or the Wizards cutting bait this summer for pennies on the dollar, changes must be made.

Leonsis might value loyalty, but his record also shows an appreciation for reaching the mountain top. The way this team is currently constructed, his Washington Wizards will barely advance beyond base camp in the next few seasons.