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WTOP Q&A Highlights Wizards Flawed Strategic Plan

 

On Wednesday, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis did an "Ask the Owner" Q&A on WTOP in which, among other things, he apologized for the team's crummy start and bad record. With a hat tip to Dan Steinberg for transcribing the interview, here are my responses to Leonsis...

"You can communicate to the fans and say nobody can plan for the loss of five of eight players, especially when you're in the midst of a rebuild," the owner said. "We weren't a veteran team to begin with, that had a strong foundation. But no one wants to hear that. And so, as you communicate that, really it sounds like spin and hype and justification for starting 0-12. We didn't win a game in our first dozen games. And the fans, they're bottom-line oriented. They want you to win. And again, I apologize. There's nothing we can do about that one."

Given that the team's strategy was to bring in veterans to make a run at .500 and hopefully, maybe get in the playoffs if everything went right, yeah...fair enough. The team did have significant injuries to Nene, John Wall, Trevor Ariza, Trevor Booker and A.J. Price. The biggest was the one to Nene -- a foot injury that's still limiting him.

I'll get to that "all-in for .500" strategy in a moment.

On chemistry: "The players have reacted in the best way that they can, which is effort, and teamwork, and belief that if they work hard they'll get good results. And so I'm very happy with the integrity and the character. And that was a big step forward for us, because we were accused of not having great optics in the locker room, not having players that were coachable and were united. And that's not the issue right now. We might have some talent deficiencies in some places, but we don't have work ethic or coachability [issues], and that was a big step forward for us."

This is a good point, and it's something to like about this team. At no point have I felt that the players weren't giving a full and honest effort. Even as the losses mounted, the team continued to work and fight and compete. When Jordan Crawford hit that buzzer-beater game-winner a couple weeks ago, it was great to see his teammates mob him. They celebrated like it was an NCAA tournament win, and while I'd prefer that winning was more...routine...I loved the enthusiasm.

On the last two weeks: "The fans are starting to see what we believed when we were putting the team together. The first two years we really had to deconstruct the team and bring in all these young players, and this year we brought in some vets. Obviously we're not stopping. We have to continue. We have to add to the team. But I think the fans can sense that the team that we put on the floor has high character, they have skills, they're talented, they work really hard, they're really, really coachable."

As soon as Leonsis starts talking "strategic plan," I find him making less and less sense. I understand needing to "deconstruct" the team. I understand the need to bring in young players. What I don't understand is why they chose these particular young players -- you know, the ones who aren't producing (specifically Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin and Chris Singleton). In each case there were better options available to the team. In each case, there were an array of knowledgeable fans and smart analysis that identified specifically who those options were. Not in hindsight. Ahead of time. At the time.

And yeah, they did bring in veterans. The trouble here wasn't necessarily bringing in veterans, it was the identification of "youth" as a problem. The Wizards haven't struggled because they were too young, they struggled because their players weren't good enough. They didn't need older players (to illustrate, they traded an old guy in Rashard Lewis for two of the "vets" they acquired in the offseason), they needed BETTER players.

The ideal strategy would have been to pursue young veterans the team could build around. Instead, they got older guys without upside who will either be gone or declining in a couple years.

On seeking a .500 record down the stretch: "Well, in our offseason, when we were putting the team together, the staff came and presented what the stats were. And basketball is very analytical, and we have all these Ph.Ds running around, and then you have your front office with Ernie [Grunfeld] and Tommy [Sheppard] and Milt [Newton]. And what were the expectations? It was the third year of the rebuild. And it was, we have to show progress and positive steps so that we can become a playoff team....And so we thought .500 this year would be a big step forward, but it also would have the double benefit of putting you in the playoff hunt. And teams that play .500 in the East – that's how competitive and how much parity [there is] – you could make the playoffs. And that would be great progress. And so now our team is back together. If we can play .500 basketball from here on out, at least it would give us a signal that the players that we've put in place and have under contract and the coaching staff, that plan was starting to come to fruition."

This part of their strategic plan has never made a bit of sense to me. Why shoot for .500 when they had the resources available to aim higher? Specifically, the Wizards had a high draft pick, a large expiring contract (Rashard Lewis), and cap room. The Wizards -- seeking to create an illusion of progress -- cashed in those assets for Bradley Beal (who I think will be a good SG in a couple years), Okafor and Ariza.

Along the way, they reportedly turned down a trade for James Harden -- a productive, 23-year old SG who was likely to continue improving for the next couple years, and then stabilize at All-Star level production for the next 7-8 years. The deal would have cost them Beal, who I like, but Harden is exactly the kind of veteran a rebuilding team should have been pursuing.

New Orleans used the cap room they acquired from Washington in the Okafor/Ariza deal to acquire PF Ryan Anderson -- a productive, young player with a unique skill set. Like Harden, Anderson is exactly the kind of veteran a rebuilding team should have been pursuing.

Those are just a couple "sample" moves that would make sense for a team in the Wizards' position last offseason. They also could have used their cap room and the amnesty draft for smaller moves like picking up Elton Brand on the cheap as a stopgap PF, or signing inexpensive, productive and young free agents like Danny Green or Lou Williams.

And, of course, the Wizards could have used their second round pick to get an actual player instead of using it on a draft-and-stash Euro who can't shoot.

On trades and free agency: "You have to be able in most cases, take on money when you make a trade, because you're gonna trade young assets for a player. And we're willing to do that. People around the league know that we are willing to make that investment. And then you have to sign free agents. Well, until you start to become a better team, free agents don't want to play for you. I think we're getting to that point now where the team is starting to be competitive, people know the locker room situation is very straightforward and the integrity is good. And so I think we can add through free agents. But to be blunt, when I look at the free agents that will be available in the offseason, I don't see a transformational star that will come here. There's some good players, but LeBron James isn't going to be a free agent in the offseason."

Free agents don't want to sign with a bad team? Fine. Why not trade for Harden and Anderson? Why not use the amnesty draft to grab Brand? Why not use the second round pick on a guy like Jae Crowder (a guy best described as tough, hard-working, enthusiastic, coachable, and productive in college)? Or Kyle O'Quinn (a big man with potential)? Or Bernard James (a 27-year old military veteran who plays a tough and bruising style)?

And, the part about there not being a transformational star is irrelevant (and potentially inaccurate, depending on what you think of Dwight Howard). The team needs an infusion of talent. If you can't get a transformational star, use your assets to get a few good players -- guys who can help for more than a couple years. Compile assets and be ready for the opportunity to deal for a guy who might be able to change your team's fortunes (like a Harden).

Left largely un-addressed is the reasoning behind the team's strange offseason strategy. As it stands now, it looks like they're attempting to build around a backcourt of Wall and Beal, and a frontcourt of Nene and Okafor. Which is weird considering that Wall and Beal are incredibly young, while Nene and Okafor are NBA senior citizens.

It appears that the Wizards offseason plan was to bring in players they thought could get them into the playoffs. If they could manage that, casual fans would look at the improved record, take it as a sign of progress, and buy tickets.

But, this "progress" would be an illusion, even if they were successful, because of the aging frontcourt. Even the "progress" of getting that 8th playoff spot would not have been sustainable because they were going to need to change the parts up front. By acquiring two 30-year old frontcourt guys, the front office had to know (or should have known) they were making short-term moves. Which seems nutty to me -- IF the goal is to build toward a championship.

So, as I often am when I listen to Leonsis talk, I'm left with more questions than answers. This "all-in on .500" strategy still puzzles me. They had the chance this past offseason to acquire good young players who could help the team build toward meaningful and sustainable success. Instead, they brought in older guys with little upside for the "certainty" of a .500 season and a shot at the playoffs. (A strategy that didn't work because of all the injuries).

And before we go down the "this what Kevin is REALLY mad about" road -- I'm not bothered by the team making moves that I wouldn't have made. My gripe was (and still is) that their underlying strategy is flawed. That flawed strategy is driving their roster moves, which means their roster moves are going to be similarly flawed. And I've heard nothing from the owner to make me think that strategy has changed.

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