Tommy Sheppard Credit: All-Pro Reels

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The Washington Wizards are at a crossroad. After the team lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the NBA playoffs in five games, reporters pressed Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard about the topic on the mind of anyone who follows the team: the status of head coach Scott Brooks, who finished the final year of his five-year contract. Sheppard insists he doesn’t plan on making any hasty decisions.

“We’re not doing anything about that today,” Sheppard said on a Zoom call with reporters on June 3. “We’re obviously going to do a thorough evaluation top-to-bottom of our whole organization and ways we can get better.”

Brooks, for his part, is adamant about wanting to stay on board as Wizards head coach. He said so repeatedly during his media call with reporters after the season ended, and received a strong endorsement to stay from Russell Westbrook. In 2016, Brooks signed a five-year, $35 million contract to become the Wizards head coach under previous president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld. While Sheppard was the assistant general manager under Grunfeld, he has paved his own path as the lead decision maker of the Wizards and making a call on who will lead the team in the huddles going forward would be a major way for him to make an impact on the team’s future.

In order to properly evaluate whether Brooks should stay, the coach’s entire tenure must be thoroughly examined. Brooks kept the team motivated and focused enough to reach the playoffs this season, but his overall tenure with the Wizards has left plenty to be desired. When Brooks arrived in D.C., the Wizards were a young team on the rise in the NBA with the promise of one day challenging LeBron James for Eastern Conference supremacy. 

The team came closest to making it to the conference finals for the first time in four decades when they lost a Game 7 to the Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals in 2017, but that success proved fleeting, as the Wizards struggled to show growth as an organization in the years that followed. Injuries to All-Star John Wall certainly did not help, but as the Philadelphia 76ers showed the Wizards in defeat, it takes more than one player to stop the show.

Coming from the Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooks had the reputation of being a skilled developmental coach after he led a young Thunder team to the NBA Finals in 2012, but time may have proven that those star players may have been just as dynamic regardless of who was leading them. 

The Wizards had a stable of young prospects that they had hoped Brooks would be able to develop into consistent players who could help Wall and Bradley Beal get over the next team hurdle. Otto Porter Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr., Tomáš Satoranský, Bojan Bogdanović, and most recently Troy Brown Jr. all needed to develop within the organization and failed to do so under Brooks’ tenure, which left the Wizards with a gaping hole in the way their roster was constructed. Washington lacked the size in the wings on their roster and paid for it as the 76ers used their team height advantage to dominate the Wizards. In defeat, the Wizards learned just how far away they are at competing with the best teams in the league.

Brooks did lead the Wizards back to the playoffs in the 2017-2018 season, but a first round exit to the Toronto Raptors marred the season. The next two seasons were filled with chaos in Washington and while Brooks prides himself on being a “players’ coach,” he seemingly lost control of the team as his locker room voice went stagnant among veteran players. Still, the Wizards forged ahead with Brooks and allowed him to finish his contract. 

The decision to retain or move on from Brooks will be discussed collaboratively with the Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, but Sheppard made it clear that the final decision will ultimately be up to him. Moving forward, simply making the playoffs will no longer the benchmark for success for the organization. “Now that’s no longer acceptable, we have to be much better next season and we will,” Sheppard said.

That will be the bar whether or not Brooks returns next season.

In their attempt to climb out of mediocrity, Sheppard and the Wizards know that they must take big swings in order to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Sheppard could choose to gamble on a young assistant coach around the league or maybe he will look to hire a former NBA player who could earn the respect of Washington’s star backcourt. The relationship between Sheppard and Brooks runs deep and is not only personal in their closeness, but professional in the sense that they share an agent. 

Retaining Brooks would keep a level of continuity that the Wizards players are certainly familiar with, but in order to get the desired results the team may need to get out of their comfort zone. Only time will tell if Sheppard believes the risk of making such an organizational change will be worth the reward.

Photo by All-Pro Reels on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.