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A new era in Wizards basketball means more involvement from ownership

A new era in Wizards basketball means more involvement from ownership

Those who work for the Washington Wizards can expect to see managing partner Ted Leonsis around more often. After conducting a months-long restructuring of the organization, Leonsis discovered there could be benefits to a more hands-on approach from ownership, not necessarily in a basketball-meddling sense, but in a way that allows the front office to operate with proper autonomy while answering more questions about their process.

Players, coaches and staffers will see Leonsis and his partners more frequently as well. He wants to pay closer attention than he did under the previous regime led by Ernie Grunfeld.

"Our owners are going to be more involved," Leonsis said. "You constantly have to gauge back and forth: is it good to be involved, or is it not good to be involved? Every agent, every player that I’ve talked to said the more they see Raul Fernandez and Laurene Powell-Jobs and me, the more connected they feel to what our vision and what our ultimate plan is."

In analyzing the Wizards organization this spring following Grunfeld's dismissal, Leonsis realized a lack of communication. Under the old model, he got the vast majority of his briefings from Grunfeld who was a singular conduit to the ownership group.

Leonsis wants more collaboration this time and it shows in the way the front office is structured. Tommy Sheppard is the general manager, but can see eye-to-eye with Sashi Brown, their chief planning and operations officer. And not far from them on the depth chart are a series of vice presidents, each with specialized roles.

The Wizards now have more top-level executives operating on a more even plane. They don't report to one team president like they used to with Grunfeld.

The ways Leonsis can be more involved have already been in practice in recent months. Throughout the offseason, as Sheppard was put through a trial run with an interim tag, he was tasked with explaining his process in more detail than Grunfeld had in the past. 

Before the draft and free agency he gave Leonsis his plans, complete with goals, budget and contingencies. They were written proposals and were presented to the team's group of governors.

For example, Leonsis was privy to their hope of drafting Rui Hachimura with the ninth overall pick. Sheppard explained why they wanted Hachimura and what they would do to make sure other teams did not know their plans. The Wizards, for instance, did not host Hachimura for a pre-draft workout in Washington.

Leonsis has also been keeping a closer eye on John Wall's injury rehab than he had with other players in the past. The Wizards training staff provides Leonsis periodical reports on Wall's progress, including his weight and road ahead.

Leonsis is going to know much more about the day-to-day operations of his team moving forward, though he insists he won't micromanage.

"I never played in the NBA. I never have worked in an NBA front office," he said in April after firing Grunfeld. 

"My belief has not changed since I bought the teams. I think owners should set strategy and vision and provide infrastructure and respond to what the organization says it needs. And you need to spend the money. I think I've done that and I want to continue to do that."

Building a winning front office can be an indeterminate pursuit. Any time a team overhauls its organization like this, there is some guesswork. No one truly knows when they make hires and changes like this, whether it will actually work.

But Leonsis knows changes needed to be made and, after doing his due diligence to study other, more successful organizations in sports, he came away with the belief he and his partners need to be more involved with the process. He wants to build the Wizards into a winner and believes this could be part of the method to getting there.

"This community loves basketball and I've let them down. We haven't won 50 games. We haven't competed for a championship since we've owned the team," Leonsis said.

"Nothing will be a better feeling for every one of us to be in service to our fanbase and to the community than to build a championship and that’s what we’re going to do."


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Rui Hachimura has to set better screens, will have big challenge in Joel Embiid

Rui Hachimura has to set better screens, will have big challenge in Joel Embiid

WASHINGTON -- Wednesday's practice for the Washington Wizards had to be adjusted due to a slew of injuries in their frontcourt. Without enough centers to run a full 5-on-5 scrimmage, head coach Scott Brooks led a walkthrough of plays, highlighting key areas he would like them to focus on as they prepare to go with smaller lineups out of necessity.

One key focus was screen-setting. Without Thomas Bryant for at least the next three weeks, the Wizards have to make up for his absence, as he currently ranks sixth in the NBA in screen assists per game. The Wizards fall in the middle of the league in ball screens and off-screens, but Bryant sets the majority of them.

At the moment, they are also missing Moe Wagner (ankle) and Ian Mahinmi (Achilles), so all three of their natural centers are hurt. That means rookie Rui Hachimura has to fill the void, as he did on Tuesday in the Wizards' loss to the Magic.

And that means Hachimura, though he's undersized for the five-spot at 6-foot-8, is going to have to set some screens.

"If he's the five, he has to hold the screens and be a screen scorer," Brooks said. "He's going to be able to learn that. I think he's going to pick it up tomorrow. I think today he saw it and our coaches are going to show him some film on it and I think you're going to see some improvement there." 

Brooks added that Hachimura struggled setting screens against Orlando. As Brooks described it, Hachimura was slipping out of his picks too early because that's what he's used to as a forward.

Hachimura is third on the Wizards in screen assists behind Bryant and Wagner, but he says he hasn't been a primary screen-setter since high school. Now he has to help his teammates get free by putting a body on the biggest and quickets athletes in the world.

"I have to be physical offensively," he said.

For the Wizards, these big men injuries are coming at a bad time. On Thursday night, they will see the Philadelphia 76ers, who play an unusually big lineup. Hachimura will have to set screens on players who are larger than him. Even Philly's point guard, Ben Simmons, is 6-foot-10.

Hachimura will also have to deal with center Joel Embiid on defense. Embiid may be the best center in basketball and also the most physically imposing.

At 7-feet and 280 pounds, he is a force down low. He leads the NBA in post-ups per game (7.9) and has a knack for getting to the free throw line. He is fifth in the NBA in free throw attempts this season (8.3/g) and was second in the league last year (10.1/g).

Foul trouble is one way the Wizards' frontcourt situation could get even worse. It's something to keep in mind as Hachimura awaits arguably the toughest challenge of his career so far.

"As young players, you've gotta expect the unexpected. Nobody expected we would have these injuries at the five spot," Brooks said.

"He [eventually] has to guard them all. That's what is going to make him valuable to us long-term, so this is good experience."


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Joel Embiid's 76ers are the last team the injury-riddled Wizards need to see

Joel Embiid's 76ers are the last team the injury-riddled Wizards need to see

The timing for Thursday night's clash with the Sixers could not have been worse for the Wizards. 

Not only are they going up against one of the best and biggest teams in the NBA, but they're going to have to do it with a cascade of injuries to their frontcourt. 

Thomas Bryant is out for at least the next three weeks with a right foot injury, and while Moe Wagner and Ian Mahinmi were both upgraded to questionable for Thursday night, neither will be playing at 100 percent and it would be Mahinmi's first game since March 18. 

Scott Brooks will have to rely on Rui Hachimura to continue to give him minutes at center and play more small-ball lineups, which isn't exactly the best recipe for success against Philadelphia. 

Here's a look at some players to watch on the Sixers and what the Wizards can do to slow them down.

Joel Embiid

If Mahinmi gets activated for the first time this season, Embiid would be a big reason why. He's an overwhelming force in the low post and consistently gets opposing bigs in foul trouble with an assortment of timely pump fakes and flops. 

Few players can shut him down one-on-one, so it'd be wise for the Wizards to focus on sending double teams in the right spots to force him to make plays under duress. 

One of Embiid's weaknesses is his passing and decision making when doubled. Given the Sixers' lack of shooting from the outside, Washington may be able to get away with this strategy a few times in this game. 

This is much easier said than done, especially when you look at how the Wizards' defense was unable to keep Orlando, the 29th-ranked offense in the NBA, under 120 points in both meetings this year. 

Ben Simmons

The 15-6 Sixers are still bonafide title contenders, but it has almost everything to do with their defense. Ranked third in the league in defensive efficiency, Philly has unrivaled size down low and length on the perimeter. 

Simmons may be their most important defender with his ability to switch and defend practically every player on the floor and his activity defending ball handlers. 

Add that to his ability to grab a rebound and speed down the floor in transition, and you have a sizeable problem on your hands. The Wizards are the worst team in the NBA at defending in transition. 

On the flip side, Simmons is the main reason the Sixers' offense has underachieved this season. The fact that he is a non-threat from anywhere outside the paint allows teams to pack the paint and prevent dribble penetration. 

We noted how it'd be smart for the Wizards to send double teams at Embiid. When Simmons is on the floor it'll be easier for the Wizards to do that and not give up easy looks Again, easier said than done, especially for this Wizards defense.