With the Wizards about to face the Boston Celtics Tuesday night in the NBA play-in game to get the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, who knows how this remarkable turnaround season will turn out?
No matter what, though, we do know one thing — Thomas F. Sheppard won the big, bold trade that changed the conversation about this team and this organization.
Sheppard, the Wizards’ general manager, is the architect of the Russell Westbrook-John Wall trade with the Houston Rockets in December.
It has taken me, and probably a lot of other area basketball fans, most of this season to get used to the fact that Sheppard, not Ernie Grunfeld, is now in charge. It’s OK if we adjust our expectations upward.
Outcomes don’t have to be miserable disasters. Every off-court Wizards decision made by the brass doesn’t have to blow up in the team’s face.
This all should have and could have happened more than 10 years ago when Ted Leonsis bought the franchise and inherited a Grunfeld-built team struck with the essential lack of character that reappeared in every Grunfeld rebuild to follow.
This change did not happen then, but it has now.
The outcome on the court and in the standings may not be any different under Sheppard this season. But possibilities exist. The Westbrook trade speaks to those possibilities.
Westbrook, after he got healthy, has had a historic season, passing Oscar Robertson’s seemingly unbreakable all-time record of 184 career triple-doubles. He has transformed the culture of the team on the court, from clueless victims to confident competitors. They have become Westbrook’s team, more than any other unit he has been with during his Hall of Fame career. He thrives on that. He is the lone Alpha dog.
Compare what’s happened in Washington to what’s going on in Houston, where Sheppard unloaded John Wall and his burdensome, seemingly untradeable contract, of which $132 million he was at the time of the trade still owed over three seasons.
About the same, by the way, as what was left on Westbrook’s deal.
Wall, 30. did come back after missing nearly two seasons from heel surgery and averaged 20.6 points and 6.9 assists this year for the Rockets, while averaging 32.2 minutes per game. But he failed to finish the season, suffering yet again another injury, this one a strained hamstring, and has not shown the ability to stay on the court.
Plus, the reality is that despite how much Wall was beloved by the community here in Washington, he was a nightmare at times behind the scenes for this organization and showed no ability to lead a culture change of any sort.
Westbrook, 32, has shown he can do that, and he has the perfect partner in Bradley Beal, whose personality will likely keep him from balking at being Robin to Westbrook’s Batman — even when Beal is among the top scorers in the league..
Sheppard’s first-round draft pick from 2019, Rui Hachimura, has shown enough to believe he could be a strong complimentary player. And the GM has proven so far to be very adept at putting together the complementary parts around his stars — something at which Grunfeld consistently failed, and miserably so (see lack of guard depth during Wall’s tenure in Washington and the physical damage it did to the point guard).
Sheppard’s trade for Daniel Gafford helped turn the season. And his free-agent signings of Raul Neto, Anthony Gill and others have all paid off. Not an Ian Mahinmi in the bunch.
But now Sheppard faces a dilemma that speaks to continuing the culture change — the future of head coach Scott Brooks, whose five-year, $35 million contract ends this season.
Brooks simply is not the answer to taking this team to the next level, up and out of the Wizards’ limbo of 45-win seasons and on to a sustainable status as a legitimate, yearly contender in the Eastern Conference. His teams traditionally lack structure, and more importantly, defense, even in his glory days in Oklahoma City.
If you want this team to be something more than just a repeat of the fraudulent Gilbert Arenas era (destined to early playoff exits, year after year), you need a coach who has the ability to give his team a defensive playoff identity of some sort.
But how can Sheppard not bring back Brooks, who was just named NBA Eastern Conference Coach of the Month, and, more importantly, is particularly close to Westbrook?
After Brooks declared Westbrook the second greatest point guard of all time, Westbrook said, “I’m grateful to somebody like Scotty, not only as a coach, but as a friend.”
And then came the gut punch: “He’s allowed me to be me.”
That has proven to be a problem over the course of many playoff games in their careers.
I doubt Sheppard ever imagined he would be feeling pressure to bring Brooks back. The general manager who has been waiting years for this opportunity likely has a list in his wallet of guys he would hire as a head coach. The one hired by Ernie Grunfeld is probably not one of them.
Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.