WASHINGTON — The Washington Wizards are making an offer to Denver Nuggets associate head coach Wes Unseld Jr. to become the franchise’s 25th head coach, multiple people with knowledge of the situation said Friday. Washington is confident it can finalize a deal this weekend.
The hiring would be a meaningful homecoming for Unseld, whose father Wes Sr. led the organization then called the Baltimore Bullets to its lone championship in 1978 and who would return to the city where he spent the first 14 years of his pro basketball career.
His hiring would close a coaching search the Wizards began shortly after parting ways with Scott Brooks on June 16.
The Pacers, Magic, Trail Blazers, Mavericks and Celtics have all also hired new coaches in the past month. The Hawks, who fired Lloyd Pierce in March, removed Nate McMillian’s interim tag and named him head coach in early July. The Pelicans are close to hiring Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green, according to multiple reports.
In Unseld, who would be the the third new head coach hired since Ted Leonsis became the team’s majority owner in 2010, Washington gets a coach with more than just a famous pedigree. The team targeted an experienced assistant who is both broadly familiar with the franchise, having worked there from 1997-2011, and who specializes in coaching defense, the side of the ball the Wizards most desperately need improved.
The Towson native spent six seasons on coach Michael Malone’s staff in Denver, the last of which he spent as associate head coach. Unseld devoted most of his tenure to elevating a defense that ranked in the bottom 10 in the league in the two seasons before he and Malone arrived to 11th in the NBA this past year.
His defensive work appears even more impressive because it wasn’t his primary focus as he climbed the NBA’s coaching ranks.
Before Denver, Unseld had pit stops in Golden State and Orlando. But he spent the bulk of his early career as a scout with the Wizards and Mystics, landing in Washington straight out of Johns Hopkins University in 1997 before working his way up to an assistant job in 2005. In that position, he worked extensively on the offensive side of the ball.
Unseld’s hiring would come 13 months after his father, Wes Sr., died of complications from pneumonia. The Wizards and Mystics honored the tenacious Hall-of-Fame center who coached and served as general manager in Washington after spending his entire 13-year career there by wearing a No. 41 patch on their jerseys all season. His jersey already hung in the rafters at Capital One Arena.
The Wizards wouldn’t just be bringing a beloved name back to Washington. They would also be hiring a Black man as a coach for the first time in more than a decade, at a time in which both athletes and advocates are pushing for more people of color to occupy top jobs across sports leagues.
Unseld would be far from the organization’s first Black head coach — K.C. Jones was hired in 1973 — but he would be the first Black man in the position since Ed Tapscott took over from Eddie Jordan on an interim basis in the 2008-09 season. The Wizards’ previous three head coaches were White, and in a news conference after it was announced that Brooks would not return, Washington general manager Tommy Sheppard stressed multiple times that assembling a diverse candidate pool was a priority. Milwaukee Bucks assistants Darvin Ham and Charles Lee, both reported finalists for the Wizards’ job, are also Black.
Unseld is the fourth Black man hired to fill a head coaching position this offseason, after Chauncey Billups’ controversial hire in Portland, Ime Udoka was hired in Boston and Jamahl Mosley was hired in Orlando.
None of the head-coaching vacancies have gone to women despite multiple organizations reportedly interviewing longtime Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, including the Trail Blazers. Duke coach Kara Lawson and Pelicans assistant Teresa Weatherspoon were also reportedly considered for head coaching jobs around the league.
In his second stint in the District of Columbia, Unseld will have to focus his attention once again on remodeling a lackluster defense. Washington ranked 20th in the league this past season, and even that was improvement after finishing 29th and 27th in the previous two years.
He’ll also need to work with a roster that may be in flux after the 2021-22 campaign should franchise cornerstone Bradley Beal choose to leave. Beal is under contract through the 2022-23 season, but has a player option to terminate the deal in a year, a seismic move that could affect the rest of the Wizards’ still-developing players such as Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija.