The NCAA Tournament is an NBA executive and scout’s dream, with top prospects playing multiple times a week on big stages. It’s also a gossip mill for NBA fodder. High among the list of items of scuttlebutt:
Who is going to run the Wizards?
On the surface, it’s not an appealing situation. The Wizards have one of the most toxic cap situations in the league, owing $86 million to just five players next season, three of which were too injured or too ineffective to play since January (John Wall, Dwight Howard and Ian Mahinmi). Washington’s franchise player, Wall, ruptured his Achilles tendon and is due an average annual salary of $42.5 million over the next four years (assuming he picks up his 2022-23 player option worth $46.8 million). The franchise hasn’t won 50 games since the 3-point line was introduced and the fanbase is getting restless.
Who would want that position?
Turns out, lots and lots of people.
“It’s amazing how many guys want that job,” said one rival league executive. “A ton of names want it.”
The Wizards job is appetizing for the same reason why it might seem unappetizing: It’s going to take a long, long time to turn it around. That kind of long leash is appealing for executives who want enough time and chances to see it through. Job security is hard to come by in this world. The Wizards job is the same sort of project that made the Brooklyn Nets GM job (that went to Sean Marks) more sought after than people thought. The fact that Leonsis showed Grunfeld an immense amount of loyalty is also alluring.
The list, as the Wizards have made it known in their announcement, will start with the incumbent, Tommy Sheppard, Grunfeld’s long-time No. 2 in command. One question that often came up in league circles was whether Sheppard would survive Grunfeld’s ouster, or whether his close proximity to his former boss would work against him.
“If anybody deserves a shot, it’s Tommy [Sheppard],” one prominent league executive said. “But the fanbase is going to clamor for change. Is Tommy enough of a change?”
The Wizards have made it clear: They don’t see Sheppard as Ernie 2.0. He’s a real option to take over for the long haul. With over a decade of high-level front office experience, Sheppard has been floated around for multiple GM jobs. He most recently interviewed with the Atlanta Hawks in 2017, a job that eventually went to Travis Schlenk. That same year, ESPN named him among the top seven front-office candidates in the league (one of those seven was now-Los Angeles Clippers GM Mike Winger).
If it isn’t the Wizards, some team will scoop up Sheppard. Should you want to know the latest technologies and sports science innovations that could rule the NBA in five years, Sheppard is on the short list of those in-the-know. His curiosity isn’t his only feather in his cap. He carries institutional knowledge of the Wizards’ inner-workings, decades of experience across multiple organizations, a deep Rolodex of power brokers in the league and the interpersonal skills for the job.
Another name to watch is Houston’s Gersson Rosas. The Rockets’ executive vice president of basketball operations has first-hand experience in helping to rebuild a team in cap hell as a result of injuries to stars. Current general manager Daryl Morey spearheaded the effort to remake the team beyond Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, but Rosas was integral in that process. League sources also tell NBCSports.com that the Rockets were in hot pursuit of Beal at the trade deadline. Houston was prepared to offer what was termed as a “whatever it takes” package, per sources, but were rebuffed by the Wizards, who elected to hold onto the All-Star.
If hired, Rosas could make Beal his version of James Harden. Rosas was a finalist for the recent Charlotte and Philadelphia general manager openings and pulled out of the running for the Detroit job that eventually went to longtime executive Ed Stefanski.
Aside from Sheppard and Rosas, keep a close eye on former Cavs general manager David Griffin and Nets assistant GM Trajan Langdon. Griffin has a championship pedigree and Langdon may be the next GM from “Pop U” (Marks worked with Langdon while with the Spurs).
There have long been whispers that the Wizards might make a change before the season ended. One possible reason they couldn’t wait until the playoffs to make a move: Competition. With Dell Demps gone in New Orleans and Tom Thibodeau out in Minnesota, top candidates could be snatched up by the Pelicans and the Timberwolves. Minnesota has Karl-Anthony Towns and the Pelicans can flaunt total autonomy in a rebuild. But can they win over top candidates with Beal, D.C.’s market and not being in the Western Conference?
Evidently, Leonsis wanted to be in that conversation now. Time was of the essence. And that’s what might be the most appealing part of the Wizards job: Time.