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Are We Sure … the Wizards Aren’t Rebuilding the Right Way?

The big summer signing was Isaiah Thomas. Bradley Beal is ignoring an extension offer. But a few steps backward could be exactly what Washington needs in order to solve its decades-long problem.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA offseason established a bunch of new story lines that require closer inspection. Throughout the next month-plus, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

Today’s question: Are we sure the Wizards aren’t rebuilding the right way?

When I think of the current state of the Washington Wizards, I think of a scene from Billions. (Why, yes, I do work at The Ringer.) In the delightfully absurd, climactic scene of the show’s first-season finale, Paul Giamatti’s U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades finds himself in spittle-laced verbal combat with his nemesis, hedge fund titan Bobby Axelrod. Rhoades is wealthy, the son of a blue blood. He’s married to a brilliant woman and supposedly has two children. But he doesn’t really care about any of that. The only thing that really makes him happy is putting people in their places; in this case, that means booking Axelrod for insider trading. What makes Rhoades a worthy nemesis for Axe isn’t his power so much as his lack of concern about anything but his ego war. “You know the only enemy more dangerous than a man with unlimited resources?” Rhoades grunt-exhales at Axelrod. “One with nothing to lose.”

For a time, pride, perhaps, kept the Wizards from accepting their situation. The contract of team president Ernie Grunfeld kept getting extended despite a string of mediocre seasons. Core players were given deals based on optimistic projections of their value rather than their actual value. The John Wall–and–Bradley Beal–led vehicle was clearly on a track to nowhere as early as four years ago, but the franchise had not yet decided to change course and get weird. But now, with Wall out with a ruptured Achilles and just beginning the worst contract in basketball, Beal seemingly uninterested in signing another extension, and Grunfeld departed for the cave of confusion from which he came, the Wizards are aware that they have nothing to lose. In other words, whatever the franchise is doing from this point on is good, because at least they’re doing something different.

For starters: Grunfeld is gone. After riding with one of the worst decision-makers in professional basketball for the better part of two decades, Washington gave its longtime head executive the boot in April. With Grunfeld’s former lieutenant Tommy Sheppard at the controls as interim GM, all manner of player—fan favorite Tomas Satoransky, relative nonfactors Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, midseason acquisition Trevor Ariza—was allowed to walk in free agency without much indication that Washington would attempt to overpay to retain them. Sheppard also unloaded Dwight Howard’s contract and brought in shooters C.J. Miles and Davis Bertans, acquired Isaac Bonga, Moe Wagner, Jemerrio Jones, and a 2022 second-rounder from the Lakers by helping facilitate the Anthony Davis trade, and generally avoided any eyebrow-raising moves. (The signing of Isaiah Thomas was a little bizarre, but he’s on a one-year minimum deal. There’s not much downside there.) He also—get this—kept this year’s first-round draft pick and used it to select Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura. He then followed it up by trading into the second round for Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield.

In short, the Wizards handled this offseason like a smart franchise: They didn’t make any detrimental long-term deals, managed to capitalize on a contender’s desperation, and added a sizable group of young players.

Still, for a while, it seemed that the Wizards were determined not to have Sheppard as their long-term replacement at GM; they fruitlessly pursued Denver’s Tim Connelly, it was widely speculated that they wanted to throw the kitchen sink at Toronto’s Masai Ujiri, and for weeks the team seemed to be sifting through an unnamed pool of candidates before offering Sheppard the job. He reportedly “won over ownership” with his work after Grunfeld’s departure.

It would be easy to take owner Ted Leonsis’s extended hesitation before hiring Sheppard as a sign that Washington’s rebuild may not be on the right track. At present, there is some support for such concern: Wall’s contract is still on the books, of course, and the team also insists that it is not interested in trading Beal. The latter is coming off the best season of his career and could net a solid handful of assets that could be of use in 2023 once Wall’s deal is up and the franchise has the flexibility to build a contender in earnest. It is possible that Washington isn’t planning on abandoning its core.

It’s possible, if you are so inclined, to convince yourself that Wall will return from his Achilles injury and still function at a near-superstar level for the 2020-21 season. Throw in a still-content Beal in a contract year, and assume that some of the aforementioned young guys improve relatively quickly, and it’s certainly possible that the Wizards could be back in the postseason before long. Leonsis said just months ago that Washington would not tank, and though the Wizards jettisoned Otto Porter Jr. at the trade deadline and more veterans this summer, he seems not to have entirely backed off that edict. Just last week, he asked of the Wizards rebuild, “Why can’t this be quick?”

This can be quick, but it probably shouldn’t be. The hiring of former Cleveland Browns executive Sashi Brown may suggest that taking the long road is at least under consideration. Brown made a name for himself in Cleveland as an executive who wasn’t afraid to lean into analytics or lose a ton of games. Now he will serve as the team’s “chief planning and operations officer” to help the Wizards front office act as a “forward-thinking structure.” His addition seems to indicate that the Wizards are no longer afraid of new ideas. That’s good news for a franchise 40 years removed from its last 50-win season.

A razing of the roster was probably inevitable the moment Wall re-injured himself in February. It’s encouraging, then, that the Wizards ripped the Band-Aid off sooner rather than later, and leaned into shrewd management instead of quick fixes. It may cost them Beal, but he seems like a long shot to re-sign in the summer of 2021 anyway. Given the prices stars commanded in trades this summer, perhaps it’s better to settle that situation sooner, too. It will be a long road to contention, but that’s better than a road to nowhere. It’s good to have nothing to lose.