Wizards’ journey may be over this season, but they’re on the long road for success

Washington Wizards players react on the bench during the second half of Game 5 in a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers, Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Success doesn’t come instantly in the NBA. The Washington Wizards understand that, and their first-round playoff loss to the Philadelphia 76ers served as a reminder.

The Sixers are championship-ready this year, but it took them several years and two head coaches to reach that point. For seven seasons, Brett Brown guided the Sixers through what the club dubbed “The Process,” including three postseason appearances, and now Doc Rivers is in charge of the team’s title quest.

That doesn’t mean the Wizards are at the beginning of a seven-year process, or that it’s time to replace head coach Scott Brooks, whose five-year contract has expired.

Brooks hasn’t had it easy; only Bradley Beal is still on the roster from when Brooks arrived in 2016. Brooks had to shift from leading a veteran team to carrying out a rebuilding process.

Brooks seems to work in concert with Tommy Sheppard as general manager. The Wizards shook things up in the summer of 2019 when Sheppard replaced Ernie Grunfeld.

Under Grunfeld, the Wizards had success — as recently as 2017, they were one win away from the NBA Eastern Conference Final — but it all unraveled as John Wall battled injuries that limited him to only 73 games over three seasons.

Just before the start of the season in December, Sheppard traded Wall to Houston for future Hall-of Famer Russell Westbrook. Under Brooks’ guidance in Oklahoma City, Westbrook developed into one of the game’s best point guards. He instantly became a leader on the Wizards and an asset in Beal’s further development.

Beal finished second to Steph Curry for the NBA scoring title and, with Westbrook, helped will the Wizards into the postseason. Sidetracked in January by a two-week COVID-19 shutdown, Washington only had a 0.6% chance of making the NBA Playoffs in early April. Amazingly, they closed the season on a 17-6 run and became the first team in 24 years to go from 15 games below .500 to the postseason.

The team is not growing tired of Brooks’ message.

“Me personally, I don’t see why Scotty should have to go anywhere,” Westbrook said when asked about Brooks’ future. “And it is not just because we’re close, but he’s done a hell of a job with our team, our program. He kept us together; he kept encouraging us and he kept us fighting.”

Notice Westbrook used the word “program” when talking about the Wizards. They’re not thinking short-term. They believe they are building something, and Brooks has made it clear he wants to continue to be part of Washington’s future.

“There is no decision in my mind,” said Brooks. “I love coaching here. This is a special group and there is no drama. Everybody just came to work and did their job.”

Sheppard and Washington’s ownership will have the final say on whether Brooks stays as head coach. First, there are more exit interviews with players.

“We are going to conduct a thorough review of the entire organization and discuss how we can get better,” said Sheppard. “Scotty guided us through some of the most difficult, dark moments, probably, in this franchise’s history. To finish the way we did I think speaks very highly of a cohesive unit that was able to overcome great odds and Scotty did a great job with that.”

Now comes the hard part for the Wizards: going from a team that makes the playoffs to a team capable of advancing in the postseason.

Beal is the face of the franchise, and the Wizards are built around him. Sheppard believes Beal has formed “a true brotherhood” with Westbrook and the two are the franchise’s cornerstones.

More pieces

Two years into his NBA career, Rui Hachimura is demonstrating his worth as the ninth overall selection in the 2019 draft. The power forward has the potential to become a reliable third scoring option behind Beal and Westbrook; he has developed a 3-point shot and can guard multiple positions on defense.

At the trade deadline, the Wizards acquired Daniel Gafford from Chicago, and he electrified fans with high-flying dunks and demonstrative blocks. Thomas Bryant will join Gafford at the center position. A knee injury limited Bryant to only 10 games this past season, but he was on an upward track and is different from Gafford — a big man who can go out on the wing and shoot threes.

Washington was also encouraged by the early returns on their 2020 draft pick Deni Avdija, but a leg injury cut short his season. Avdija showed flashes that he could be the wing scorer and defender the team need.

The Wizards knows they need more than what they have, and they don’t have much room under the salary cap. That means Sheppard, as he did with the Gafford deal, will have look to improve the roster through a trade or attracting the right free agent. And Sheppard goes into the offseason knowing he has the support of the team’s ownership group led by Ted Leonsis.

“Ted has been fantastic throughout the time I’ve dealt with him. He has never said no,” said Sheppard. “But he does make sure that we are very clear about the expectation when we do get the green light to do things The bottom line with him is always about is this conducive to winning and are we  going to continue to be pillars in the community.”

Landing free agents takes a recruiting process. Players are motivated by money, but also to go where they believe they have a chance to win, and Beal believes D.C. is an attractive destination.

“Hopefully, teams were watching us and saw what we are capable of doing and how we compete,” said Beal. “We play hard and get out and play fast. That’s who we are and what we do. D.C. is an unbelievable market and a true sports town. I don’t see why anyone would not want to come here.”

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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