There should have been one accepted, bulletproof rule in the Washington Wizards’ general manager search: No attractive sitting GMs will take this job for basketball reasons. It does not mean you should avoid them, but if you choose to pursue, be prepared to go to over the top in making money, length of contract, location, resources, autonomy or some other factor so compelling it minimizes the burden of the Wizards’ complicated situation.
That’s where the Wizards went wrong with Tim Connelly. Owner Ted Leonsis reportedly offered him the job, but there was no lavish incentive other than it being in Connelly’s home region. So Connelly did the only reasonable thing he could. He went back to the Denver Nuggets, a young playoff team out West that earned a No. 2 seed this season and has the talent and roster flexibility to become great. And the Wizards’ search for a permanent new basketball operations leader crawled from its sixth week into a seventh.
Fiasco? No, let’s not use such strong language just yet. The clock feels like it’s ticking faster, but there is still time to get it right. There are plenty of available basketball minds, too.
Driftless? Yes, that’s the concern here. You must be careful because the process isn’t over, but some kind of running commentary is inevitable. And the way the Wizards are currently conducting this critical search, you have to wonder what they’re going for and why. That’s a mind-boggling problem considering that Leonsis took the extraordinary step to hire Mike Forde, the CEO of Sportsology and a former Chelsea F.C. executive, as a consultant during this effort.
By all indications, their flirtation with Connelly ran parallel to the actual identifying and vetting of candidates likely to take the job. They had narrowed the list to three — longtime lieutenant Tommy Sheppard, Oklahoma City Thunder vice president Troy Weaver and former Cleveland and Atlanta GM Danny Ferry — and conducted second interviews last week with those finalists. Then Connelly, who had long been rumored as a candidate but seemed hesitant early on, decided he wanted to be wooed, and the Wizards wooed him in a peculiar manner with hazy details of what exactly their offer was.
It was a difficult decision only because Connelly grew up in Baltimore and has a history with the Wizards’ organization. The Wizards could have made it harder to choose, but they just made it weird.
I get why the franchise didn’t want to go overboard for Connelly. He’s built a good thing in Denver, but he’s not Bob Myers or Daryl Morey or R.C. Buford. He’s not as accomplished as Danny Ainge. He’s not as established and fearless as Masai Ujiri. But it feels like the Wizards left their best effort on the table. Normally, you would do that if you felt you had someone you’re just as comfortable with as a secondary option. Connelly turned down the job Monday, and two days later, there were no signs the Wizards have pivoted to one of their three initial finalists.
Now what? This is where it gets scary. It will remain scary until the Wizards consummate a deal. If Leonsis is uninspired by Sheppard, Weaver and Ferry, then the past seven weeks have been a waste. If Leonsis simply can’t decide because it’s close, well, lucky for him I’m in the opinion business and can offer a ranking.
1. Weaver. He represents fresh blood. He has been part of a successful build and sustained success in Oklahoma City. And he’s good talent evaluator with a versatile skill set.
2. Sheppard. The only drawback is that he worked for Ernie Grunfeld for so long, but if put in charge permanently, he should show you he’s not Grunfeld.
3. Ferry. He’s too much of a retread, and while he shouldn’t be punished in perpetuity for the racially insensitive remarks he made on a conference call while in Atlanta, that baggage still makes for a hard sell in Washington, even though he grew up in the area.
There. Done. I’ll send an invoice shortly, Ted.
To be perfectly fair, after Leonsis fired Grunfeld, the owner did express a desire to do more than make a new hire. He wants to revise the way the basketball operations department works, make it more collaborative. He also wants a team-building approach that puts the Wizards on the cutting edge of the NBA.
“My main goal is to right now, as fast as I can, bring in an outside firm to provide some services for us,” Leonsis said in early April. “I want to do what’s called ‘best practicing.’ What do the best organizations look like? What do they spend? Maybe I made mistakes in the way we spent and invested our money. I have to be open-minded.”
Maybe Leonsis wants to make a splash. Maybe he’s waiting to take one more swing at a sitting GM — Ujiri? — but if he does, he had better be willing to make a top-of-the-market offer. Maybe he just wanted more time to mull over the current candidates, who figure to remain available. There’s nothing wrong with going out of the way to make the best choice, but as I wrote last week, there’s a time crunch. The June 20 draft is now less than a month away. Eleven days after that, a free agency period begins, and the Wizards have two-thirds of a roster to fill and limited resources with just shy of $90 million already committed to five players: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Ian Mahinmi, Dwight Howard and Troy Brown Jr. That number rises to almost $110 million if they take the unlikely step of picking a $20 million team option on Jabari Parker.
Too many big decisions loom. Do they have to trade Beal to create a balanced and competitive roster long term? Is Mahinmi’s expiring contract (about $16 million) movable, or is using the stretch provision a wise option? How many of their own free agents should they try to keep? How do they do that without adding too many long-term salary commitments? Is a teardown — which most new GMs would prefer in this situation — even possible with John Wall at start of a four-year supermax contract?
In the nine years that Leonsis has been the Wizards’ majority owner, he has done plenty things right. Most notably, the recent string of playoff runs with Wall and Beal were exciting and represented a solid level of sustained improvement for the franchise. But it was also unfulfilling, ultimately. The Wizards could have gotten more out of it.
There’s a big part of Leonsis that feels like he has broken the wheel of cluelessness that burdened the franchise before he took over. In reality, it’s much harder to suggest the Wizards have freed themselves completely of 40 years of ineptitude.
This GM hire, the most important of Leonsis’ ownership tenure to date, will be a better indicator of where the franchise is. The longer the wait, the more it feels like the past continues to haunt the Wizards.