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John Wall era 'incomplete'? Why the Wizards owner Ted Leonsis still believes in team's original plan

John Wall era 'incomplete'? Why the Wizards owner Ted Leonsis still believes in team's original plan

Ten years ago this month, Ted Leonsis completed his acquisition of a majority stake in the Washington Wizards. Not long after the deal was finalized, he met with then team president Ernie Grunfeld.

Leonsis had a plan he wanted Grunfeld to follow and it started with the draft. He had already experienced some success building through the draft with his Capitals of the NHL and presented Grunfeld with some research he had done on the construction of NBA champions. He looked back decades and came away with the belief the best teams are built by drafting players.

When Leonsis and Grunfeld met, the team had recently won the draft lottery to obtain the first overall pick. They were set to draft John Wall and begin the process of building the team from the ground up the way Leonsis wanted it built.

So, now that 10 years have passed, has the plan worked as well as Leonsis had hoped?

"I thought at the time we were executing a very good strategy of drafting and retaining and keeping our young players together as a core. John was the first pick, Brad [Beal] was third, Otto [Porter Jr.] was third. That seemed to be working," Leonsis told NBC Sports Washington. 

"For the most part, it was the right strategy. Injuries have played a very, very big role in the ultimate state of the team. And we've lived and learned and we've made much bigger investments in our health and wellness programs and training and the like. So, the strategy and the plan is incomplete."

Several parts of Leonsis' take there may jump out. One is the fact he maintains confidence in the original plan, though with language to suggest it requires some flexibility. He also added this, for context:

"I'm still convinced that's the best way to build in the NBA. There are only so many good free agents willing to leave that team and go to another team and put that team over the edge. So, we did the right thing."

To be fair, there is no singular way to find success in the NBA. And in the decade since Leonsis took over the Wizards, the league has become much more transient with star players moving from place to place. That has led to success stories like the Toronto Raptors, who won a title last summer by trading a longtime face of the franchise, DeMar DeRozan, for one year with Kawhi Leonard.

The other part of Leonsis' quote that may stand out is the word "incomplete." In our conversation, Leonsis used it three times to describe the state of the Wizards. There are a few reasons he gave, one being health.

"You can't grade us because we get an incomplete because of the amount of injuries that we had," he said.

Wall is the poster child of that, of course. After making the All-Star team five times in his first eight seasons, his career since has been decimated by injuries.

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Wall played in only half of the Wizards' games in 2017-18, missed 50 last year and has yet to play this season. His injuries have ranged from knee problems to a heel issue to a ruptured Achilles.

The Wizards have also had injuries crop up at the most inopportune of times. Like, when Wall broke five bones in his wrist and hand during the second round of their 2015 playoff series against the Hawks. If he stayed healthy, the Wizards may have gone on to the conference finals, a place the franchise hasn't been since 1979.

But Leonsis can also emphasize that the Wall era is "incomplete" because it is indeed not complete. He's still here and so is Beal. They are the core building blocks the Wizards managed to find as they searched for cornerstones in the draft. And both players are signed long-term and committed to seeing the plan through.

Where the Wizards go from here will depend on many different factors, Wall's health being one of them. But Leonsis seems confident in the potential of his team and their current track, as well as Wall and Beal as a pair despite what some might say is enough evidence their partnership has run its course.

"I think they both, and I know they have communicated about this, realize that winning will define who they are and what their legacy is way more than their individual stats or their contract dollars. So, that comes with maturity. The 10 years have gone fast and I think that humbles people positively that nothing is given to you and that it's a blur how fast it goes," Leonsis said.

Leonsis, in fact, says he has had direct conversations with Wall about how he should approach the next chapter of his career. Wall has already made five All-Star teams has earned guaranteed contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

There is only one thing left to truly gain, Leonsis believes.

"My conversations with him early which have continued was the importance of maintaining who you want to model your game after," Leonsis said.

"Who do you admire? Who are the winners? I think John has had in the last two years injury upon injury upon injury, but time to self-reflect. When we gave John the supermax deal, the conversation that I've had with him - and we have a very respectful relationship - it was you don't have to worry about your personal stats. It's now time to turn all of your attention to team success."

That may give hope to those who have argued Wall will need to change his playing style. It has come from the top down that essentially he no longer needs to average 20 points and 10 assists. More important than anything else, he needs to win.

Leonsis remains assured Wall and Beal can ultimately break the Wizards through and do so together. He referenced the continued storylines about their relationship.

"John and Brad are way closer and more respectful of each other than people understand or give credit to," Leonsis said.

It may not be en vogue these days for star players to stick together for the long haul. But there are examples of how continuity has paid off for teams, even if it at times has not worked out for the Wizards.

One instance was covered in the recent ESPN documentary 'The Last Dance.' The Utah Jazz with Karl Malone and John Stockton lost in the first or second round of the playoffs six straight years, and eight years total as a franchise, before finally reaching the conference finals for the first time. Malone was 28 and Stockton was 29.

Malone was 33 and Stockton was 34 before they finally reached the NBA Finals as a duo. They would make it two consecutive years, only to lose to Michael Jordan's Bulls. If it weren't for arguably the best player and team of all-time, they may have won a ring.

Now, Malone and Stockton are two of the 30 or so best players of all-time. Wall and Beal have a long way to go to get there, but if they were to even reach the conference finals, it would be the most success the Wizards franchise has achieved in over 40 years.

In order for it to actually work as Leonsis still contends it can, Wall will need to be healthy. He is expected to return at the start of the 2020-21 season, whenever that can take place. By the time he plays in the NBA again, at least 20 months will have passed since he last appeared in a game.

Wall is coming back from a serious injury, one that could affect his mobility at a position where speed is essential. And his play is directly tied to a massive number crowding the team's salary cap.

But there lies another reason why Leonsis believes the Wizards deserve a grade of 'incomplete.' He thinks the last version we saw of Wall was a shell of his peak years.

"I'm very much looking forward to John Wall's return because I think physically he will be in a much different place. He has spoken about the pain that he had been in with his bone spurs. John once showed me a bone spur, one of the bone spurs that they took out of his heel. I will be sincere with you, I had never seen something like that. I couldn't imagine what that felt like," Leonsis said.

"There are times where John has been isolated on social media where 'look, he's not playing defense, he's not getting back.' And then you would talk to John and he would say 'I feel like there are razor blades in my feet when I'm running backwards. It's gotten to the point where I can't do it, I'm hurting the team now.'"

There is also the element of Beal being a much better player now than he was the last time he played with Wall, and certainly compared to the player Beal was when Wall was last healthy, which he says was the 2016-17 season. Beal had yet to become an All-Star and, according to him, wasn't even close to what he is today.

"I do think John will come back healthy. I think we've done this together; doctors, organization and coaches with John and when he comes back with Brad, that maturity, that seasoning but also that health will be a very positive next part of his career," Leonsis said.

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Ted Leonsis believes NHL will try to finish regular season, but what will that look like?

Ted Leonsis believes NHL will try to finish regular season, but what will that look like?

With speculation swirling that the NHL is finalizing a format for the resumption of the 2019-20 season, Monumental Sports and Entertainment owner Ted Leonsis added his voice to the growing sense of optimism around the league. Leonsis appeared on CNN's "The Situations Room" on Sunday to discuss the potential return of all three of Monumental Sports' professional teams -- the Capitals, Wizards and Mystics -- and was confident that we will see all three play at some point again in 2020.

"I believe all three teams will play," Leonsis said. "We will let the NBA and NHL try to finish some or all of the regular season then go in the playoffs, we just won't be doing it with fans."

It was essentially a foregone conclusion at this point that if the 2019-20 season were to resume, it would be without fans so Leonsis' statement here is no surprise. Of more significance is the fact the NHL may still try to have regular-season games. Just what that may look like raises several questions.

It is certainly understandable why the players of playoff teams would want games before heading into the playoffs. It will give them a chance to get back into game shape and into a rhythm. While the coronavirus has caused several professional leagues to shutdown, the impact is perhaps more significant for hockey as players are not able to get onto the ice and skate. That is something that is very hard to replicate away from the ice. While every player is in the same boat in terms of a lack of ice time, the trepidation a player would feel from going from no hockey to playoff hockey is certainly understandable.

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Playing out the remainder of the regular season would also allow for the NHL to determine final regular-season standings to put towards the draft lottery, one of the complications the league faced when it suggested an early June draft.

But what's the benefit for teams outside of the playoffs to play out the season?

While the NHL appears set to expand the playoff field this season to include teams whose playoff hunt was cut short by the pandemic, there seems little incentive for teams outside of the playoffs to return to play meaningless games.

The Detroit Red Wings were so awful this season that they were already mathematically eliminated from the playoffs before the league paused its season. Is it realistic to expect those players to return from their homes after a two-month pause, go through a training camp, be isolated in a centralized location away from their families just to play completely and utterly meaningless games? Who does that benefit? The teams aren't getting any gate money since the games would be played without fans and at neutral locations and there is zero incentive for the players. Sure, every year teams who are not going to make the playoffs are expected to finish out the remainder of their 82-game schedule, but not in the middle of a pandemic, not isolated away from their families and not after a pause in the season of several months.

So what exactly will a regular-season look like? Could it be limited to just the teams that make the cut for the playoffs according to whatever format the league chooses? Could they bring back more teams than the playoff format allows and have a playoff race? Will the league for the cellar-dwellers to play anyway in the name of draft lottery seedings?

As with everything with this coronavirus, every step the NHL takes towards clarity brings with it more questions. Hopefully soon we finally have some answers.

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2.13.20 Rick Horrow sits down with Jessica Myers of Mourning Family Foundation

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USA TODAY Sports

2.13.20 Rick Horrow sits down with Jessica Myers of Mourning Family Foundation

Edited by Tanner Simkins

In the latest edition of Rick Horrow's Sports Business Podcast, Rick Horrow sits down with Jessica Myers who serves as Director of Marketing and Special Events of the Mourning Family Foundation.

LISTEN TO THE FULL PODCAST HERE

1. Major League Soccer will enjoy labor peace at least for the next five years, as MLS and the MLS Players Association struck an agreement in principle for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that will begin with the upcoming season. "As we prepare to celebrate our 25th season, we are very pleased to finalize a new five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement with our players,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “This agreement addresses key strategic priorities for the league and our players while also retaining the basic player compensation structure that has been the foundation for the growth and stability of Major League Soccer.” The deal is subject to approval by the MLS Board of Governors and the MLSPA. Deal points include increased investment in player spending, greater salary budget flexibility across rosters, players sharing in media revenue, and an increase in charter flights as well as expanded free agency. The new CBA is particularly important as MLS adds two new franchises this season – Nashville SC, and Inter Miami CF, bringing the total to 26 clubs.

2. The NBA All-Star Game gets ready to hit Chicago, with major economic upside for the league and the Windy City. The NBA’s annual all-star break is always a beehive of business activity, from the annual NBA tech summit to NBA Cares activations throughout the host city. The NBA, NBPA, and Nike also have announced that the 2020 NBA All-Star uniforms will pay tribute to the late Kobe Bryant, as well as his daughter Gianna and the seven other people who tragically passed away in last Sunday’s helicopter accident. The 2020 NBA All-Star Game will feature Team LeBron wearing the No. 2 and Team Giannis (Antetokounmpo) wearing the No. 24 – Gianna and Kobe’s basketball jersey numbers, respectively. In addition, both teams will wear jersey patches displaying nine stars, representing those who lost their lives in the crash, including John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah and Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, and Ara Zobayan. The All-Star Game takes place on February 16 at Chicago’s United Center.

3. Monumental Sports and Entertainment, owned by Ted Leonsis, searches around the world for new business partners that can help broaden the scope of their audience while also introducing new organizations to the North American Sports landscape. This became a little easier when the NBA opened up the global marketplace for teams for sponsorship sales last year, and Monumental has been a disruptive first adopter in scoring partnerships. This past week two such deals; one with the UAE Embassy surrounding their expansive gaming portfolio, the other was their first-ever deal with an Indian Company, Mahindra, the world’s number one selling tractor brand.  Monumental now has partnerships with companies based in China (Alibaba and ORG) the Middle East ( Etihad Airways and the UAE Embassy)  Japan (NEC) and India, rounding out a multimillion-dollar portfolio that complements the traditional regional and national deals that such elite properties demand.

 

4. The losing team’s merchandise from the Super Bowl is repurposed for charity. According to Yahoo! Sports, the NFL pre-prints championship merchandise with both teams for fan demand is at its highest while the confetti is still falling. That approach leaves the league with half its inventory rendered instantly unsellable. Prior to 1997, the NFL simply destroyed the “losing” merchandise. Since then, the NFL enlists the services of Good360, a charity experienced in redistributing excess corporate inventory to charitable organizations across the globe. Each year, Good360 and the league begin coordinating their distribution plans several weeks ahead of the playoffs. Right now, the NFL is in the process of inventorying all the excess 49er “championship” merchandise at a central, undisclosed location. Meanwhile, Good360 is working its own worldwide network of charities, trying to line up the right locale with the appropriate merchandise. Several years back, the league provided Good360 with a list of approved countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and from those countries, Good360 targets the appropriate charities with the clothing for people in need.

 

5. Dick’s Foundation invests $5 million in women’s soccer. According to Philanthropy Women, the Dick’s Foundation announced a three-year, $5 million Sports Matter grant to the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s United for Girls initiative aimed at increasing opportunities for girls and young women to benefit from soccer. As the presenting partner of United for Girls, the Dick’s Foundation’s grant will be used to create safe places to play, fund coaching and training opportunities, and support soccer programs in underserved communities across the country with the goal of engaging 100,000 girls by 2023. In addition to the multi-year partnership, Dick’s is the official merchandise vendor for the Stand Beside Her tour, which serves as the exhibition and training tour for the 2020 U.S. Women’s National Team ahead of competition this summer in Tokyo. Since 2014, Dick’s and The Dick’s Foundation have pledged more than $100 million to support youth sports teams and leagues in need and their most recent effort is a needed measure to put a spotlight on women’s soccer.