As the Wizards enter a new chapter under the umbrella of Monumental Basketball, the only two major holdovers in the organizational structure of the franchise are general manager Tommy Sheppard and All-Star guard Bradley Beal.
Sheppard has been tasked with turning over the Wizards roster, swapping out a pair of former All-Star point guards in John Wall and Russell Westbrook in successive years. Every player on the roster now is under the age of 30. After the Wizards relieved former head coach Scott Brooks of his duties this past summer, Sheppard declared that the Wizards will not be a “run it back team.” The changes they’ve made this summer have reinforced his words.
Beginning his 10th NBA season, Beal no longer has the luxury of relying on a strong veteran presence as an emotional and vocal leader for the team as in years past. He needs to figure out how to navigate his own path as a true franchise cornerstone.
“He sets the thermostat for our franchise,” Sheppard said in his pre-season press conference on Beal’s leadership role.
Beal is 28 and entering the prime of his career. He has let it be known that he is very much interested in staying in Washington, where he has made his home. But he’s made no qualms that winning will be a major factor in his decision to stay or go. The only thing that the Wizards can do at this point is to continue to show him that the team can improve and win under Sheppard’s leadership. So far, they are off to a good start. The Wizards beat the Toronto Raptors, 98-83, on Oct. 20 to open the season with a victory for the first time since 2017.
Much of the optimism surrounding the team comes from the franchise hiring a new head coach, Wes Unseld Jr., whose name is no stranger to basketball fans in the D.C. area. Unseld is the son of the late Wes Unseld, who was a Hall of Fame player for the Baltimore/Washington Bullets and a former coach and general manager for the franchise. Nostalgia aside, Unseld Jr. has paid his dues and proven himself as an assistant coach in the NBA for many years. He’s earned the right to lead the franchise that has his father’s name hanging in the rafters in its home arena.
Unseld Jr. arrives in D.C. with an astute focus on the defensive end. The Wizards are just one game in, but they were able to hold the Raptors to just 83 points—their fewest points allowed in a game since October 2017.
“It’s great to get that first win under our belt, but let’s not be satisfied. It’s a long season,” Unseld Jr. said after the game.
It’s not just coaching that has allowed the Wizards to improve as a team on the defensive end. The roster is now constructed of a variety of competent NBA defenders. They’re led by center Daniel Gafford, who the Wizards acquired in a trade-deadline deal last season. The team recently signed him to a three-year, $40-million contract extension before the start of the season, keeping him as the defensive anchor in the middle through the 2025-26 season. Gafford has elite athleticism for his position. He can defend the paint against opposing big men, but he also has the foot speed to stay in front of ball-handlers on the perimeter.
“I feel more wanted here. I feel like I’m home here,” Gafford said after signing the extension. “I had no choice but to take it because I’m home, and I want to be here for a while.”
The Wizards also have another talented center in Montrezl Harrell, a former Sixth Man of the Year who was acquired from the Lakers in the Westbrook trade. Harrell brings a level of tenacity on the court that the Wizards franchise has not seen in some time. Harrell had 22 points on just 11 shots and was one of the main catalysts to help spoil the Raptors return home after being away for a full season due to the COVID-19 restrictions in Canada. Coming from a down season with the Lakers, in which his role was severely diminished playing next to Anthony Davis, the Wizards should be able to use Harrell in a way similar to his breakout years with the Los Angeles Clippers. The best way to allow Harrell to shine is in the pick-and-roll with newly acquired point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who may not be as explosive as Westbrook, but is a dependable shooter and a much craftier ball-handler.
In the trade with the Lakers, the Wizards also acquired a pair of 3-and-D wing players in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma. They both bring championship experience as part of the 2020 Lakers championship team. In just a few years, Sheppard has been able to fill out a depleted roster with proven veteran players and at the very least give the Wizards an opportunity to realistically compete in a fast improving Eastern Conference.
While the on-court product is clearly improving, the remaining question is if that will be enough to keep Sheppard and Beal together for the long term. In the age of player empowerment in the NBA, it appears as if Beal and his camp are prepared to leave that question unanswered all the way to unrestricted free agency next summer that could see him potentially walk away from the Wizards and leave them with nothing. Financially it makes sense for Beal to wait. The Wizards offered him a four-year, $182 million extension on Oct. 1, but can offer slightly more with a five-year, $230 million contract next summer.
How the Wizards perform this season will certainly determine what happens next with Beal.
Photo by Mogami Kariya on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.