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The Washington Wizards’ season ended two weeks ago after a 4-1 first-round series loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, yet the team still technically remains without a head coach. Washington looked outmatched, out-played, and out-coached against Philadelphia, and while other teams like the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, and Orlando Magic have already made changes to their staff, the Wizards are still waiting, remaining undecided about how to proceed after five years with coach Scott Brooks.
And the reason? The team’s ultimate objectives, especially as it relates to championship aspirations, have been fairly unclear.
Washington wanted to make the playoffs after acquiring Russell Westbrook for John Wall, who had been the face of the team for a decade. Washington wanted to impress Bradley Beal, who the team views as the franchise player moving forward, and convince him to stick around in D.C.
The team accomplished the first goal, albeit through the league’s play-in tournament, in which the Wizards lost to the Celtics but secured the eighth spot after beating the Indiana Pacers. The playoffs were a different story. Brooks struggled to make adjustments quickly, and it wasn’t until the end of the series when he altered the lineup and started Daniel Gafford at center. Brooks continued to play three guards 6-foot-3 and under against some of the biggest lineups in the NBA. Aside from a Game 4 victory that saw Joel Embiid go down with an injury, the Wizards, a team that needs a serious overhaul to get to the level required to keep Beal long-term and become a free agent destination for marquee talent, looked far from competitive.
An optimist would say the Wizards showed resilience after starting the season 15 games below .500 and managing to finish the season on a 17-6 run, and that with a healthy Westbrook and Dāvis Bertāns, the team could make some noise in the not-so-scary Eastern Conference. The skeptic would look at the Wizards’ effort in the playoffs, and how the team plateaued when they needed Brooks most and claim that changes are needed.
The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle.
It’s true that Brooks, who’s been deemed a “players’ coach” since his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he won NBA Coach of the Year honors in 2010, held the locker room together during some of “the darkest moments in franchise history,” as Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said. When the team was losing winnable games, coping with a season-ending ACL injury to Thomas Bryant, and missing weeks of the season due to COVID-19 protocols, Brooks provided a calmness that few around NBA circles could have replicated. As the old saying goes, NBA coaches are hired to be fired, and those that lose their jobs are often let go because the impact of their voice had diminished significantly. Brooks never had that issue in Washington.
But it’s also true that the Wizards have a five-year sample size to evaluate Brooks’ performance. They know what he’s capable of and the fact is Brooks had a win percentage of 46.9 over the course of five seasons, lower than his predecessor, Randy Wittman, who was fired for underachieving. Under Brooks, the Wizards have taken a drastic defensive dip. Over the last three seasons, the Wizards have been in the bottom 10 defensively, showing up in the bottom three in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. Washington was never in the bottom half of the league defensively under Wittman.
But the Wizards still find themselves struggling to make a call on Brooks, who’s gained trust from his star players, Beal and Westbrook. Westbrook, in particular, gave Brooks a ringing endorsement at the end of the season, saying, “If it was up to me, Scotty wouldn’t be going anywhere. It’s not even a question or a conversation to even be brought up.”
There’s no doubt that the Wizards value their star player’s opinion, but as Sheppard mentioned at his end-of-season interview, the final call on who will coach the team will be his to make. NBA teams traditionally extend coaches they want to keep before their contract expires. It’s an unspoken rule, a sign that the team is excited about the development of the franchise and sees a plan unfolding that could, one day, lead to legitimate contention.
Washington didn’t do that.
Sheppard, who wasn’t the general manager when Brooks was hired, let Brooks’ contract lapse without an extension. Sheppard said the team would undergo an extensive review before making a decision on Brooks and when a report suggested the Wizards were leaning toward bringing Brooks back, the Wizards quickly refuted it.
However, a league source close to Sheppard’s thinking tells City Paper how much Sheppard values relationship building, and how that, along with his “flexible thinking,” has separated him from his predecessor, Ernie Grunfeld. The source adds that Sheppard recognizes that there’s more to a successful coach than a dynamic playbook and that not every coach can navigate a locker room, particularly during chaotic times, like Brooks did this past season. Sheppard, too, values continuity, the source says, and appreciates how difficult Brooks’ job was in trying to integrate new rotation players, especially Westbrook, whose playing style is difficult to blend with extremely limited practice time.
But the longer the team waits to sign a coach, the less certain the direction of the team becomes. If the team re-signs Brooks, the Wizards are signaling that they believe injuries and a dearth of talent is to blame. If the team moves in a different direction, it shows that they are willing to put the fact that Westbrook and Beal have a personal relationship with Brooks aside for the sake of making decisions they believe can improve the team.
While the Wizards wait to decide with Brooks’ future, other teams are pushing for interviews with sought-after coaches.
Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon has already gotten invitations to interview for the Trail Blazers and Magic jobs, according to reports. The Celtics are interviewing other top assistants around the league, including Chauncey Billups and Darvin Ham. Sheppard stated that the Wizards were not a “run it back team,” and claimed that real changes needed to be made for the team to take the next step. But as of now, there’s no indication that the team does not want to “run it back” with the same coach who’s been in D.C. since 2016.
Fresh leadership from an assistant coach who’s had years to learn and observe the evolution of the league, like Denver Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., who has obvious ties to the Wizards, could do the trick, but it doesn’t always work that way. Indiana, for instance, fired Nate McMillian to hire Nate Bjorkgren, only to fire Bjorkgren a season later and watch McMillian coach the Atlanta Hawks to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Washington has a number of options to weigh, and given the time that has passed since they last played a game, it appears the team’s brass is, indeed, weighing those options. Bringing Brooks back seems like the convenient, almost simple approach, which has been the Wizards’ way, as some would suggest. Starting anew would come with uncertainty, the chance to potentially ruffle feathers within the locker room, but it could also give Sheppard the opportunity to make another original, forward-thinking move for the franchise. Whichever way the Wizards decide to go, one thing is certain: It will likely elicit a stronger reaction from the fans than most decisions the team has made over the last decade.
Photo by All-Pro Reels on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.