The Washington Wizards have some legitimate positive momentum after a season in which they made the playoffs for the first time in three years, yet still a fairly finite competitive window at this current moment, with the contract uncertainty involving Bradley Beal and their highest-paid player, Russell Westbrook, turning 33 later this year. That presented a balance to tow as they entered a head coaching search, trying to find someone who could fit that timeline.
The Wizards decided early in the process they would focus on NBA assistants and up-and-comers. All of the names reported to have had interviews did not possess previous NBA head coaching experience.
In the end, they found someone in Wes Unseld Jr., who the team announced on Saturday had agreed to become the 25th head coach in the franchise's history. He is about as qualified as one could be without having done the job before. He's worked for NBA teams going back to the late 1990s, first as an advance scout and then as an NBA assistant coach, which he has been for four separate teams since 2005, including the Wizards.
Unseld Jr. most recently served as the associate head coach of the Denver Nuggets, one of the league's best teams and one of the best at developing young players. Their track record of player development, especially with less-heralded draft picks, is as elite as it gets. Just look at second-round pick Nikola Jokic, the 2020-21 NBA MVP.
Unseld Jr. has developed a strong reputation around the league. He also happens to be a good story as the next Wizards coach, as a local guy and the son of the greatest player in Wizards/Bullets franchise history. Wes Unseld Sr. won a league MVP and Finals MVP award in Washington, leading the Bullets to their only NBA championship in 1978. Unseld Sr. was also a coach and front office executive for the franchise.
Unseld Jr. grew up around the team at different formative stages of his life; both when he was a kid and then as a young man getting his start in the NBA coaching ranks. His basketball career is coming full circle and just 13 months after Unseld Sr. passed away.
Unseld Jr. is walking into a situation where he can compete right away with Beal and Westbrook at the helm, but also with a fairly unique challenge for a first-year head coach. The Wizards have made it clear their first-round playoff exit last season will not cut it moving forward. They want to go deep in the playoffs and that means Unseld Jr. will be tasked with making things work right away.
There won't be much time for learning on the job with Beal one year away from a player option in his contract. If Beal does not sign an extension this fall and they underwhelm in Unseld Jr.'s first year, the Wizards may be forced to make some difficult decisions about the future of their roster, i.e. whether to trade Beal (and Westbrook) before the prospect of him leaving in free agency for nothing.
That's not to say Unseld Jr. can't find instant success. When you're the associate head coach, that means you're second in line and he was the No. 2 on a very good coaching staff under Michael Malone in Denver. Unseld Jr. drew praise in particular for his work with their defense, which ranked 12th in defensive rating this past season despite boasting zero All-Defensive team players. Jokic may be the league MVP, but he's never been confused with a rim protector.
If the Wizards want to take it up a notch from last season, that means at least making it to the second round of the playoffs at a minimum and probably competing for the conference finals. They still have an entire offseason of roster changes to conduct, so setting expectations this early is difficult.
But general manager Tommy Sheppard said he wants the team to get quite a bit better and the franchise hasn't made the conference finals since 1979. Getting there would be a major accomplishment, at least in the short-term, a sizable step towards where they want to go.
It's not often a first-year, first-time NBA head coach goes that far. In the last five years, with a sample size of 20 teams between the East and West, it has only happened once. That would be Nick Nurse, who led the Raptors to an NBA championship in 2019, the lone year Kawhi Leonard played there.
Really, though, unless the Wizards make a similar trade this summer, there isn't a great recent comparison. You could go back to 2016 when Tyronn Lue won a title in his first season as an NBA head coach, but he had LeBron James. That same year, Billy Donovan led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals in his rookie season as an NBA coach, and Westbrook was on that team. But they also had Kevin Durant in the middle of his prime, and those two had already been to the NBA Finals as a duo.
There is arguably some merit, however, in the Wizards simply trying something different and new, given they haven't won anything of real consequence since the 1970s. In fact, they haven't conducted an external search like this to hire a first-time NBA head coach in 21 years, not since Leonard Hamilton in 2000. All five coaches in between (not counting interim) had been head coaches before; Scott Brooks, Randy Wittman, Flip Saunders, Eddie Jordan and Doug Collins.
Sheppard continues to make a habit of doing things differently than the Wizards have done before. His trade for Westbrook was more substantial, and in some ways riskier, than any the franchise had made in a long time. He has emphasized international scouting, and the acquisition of international players, to a much greater degree. And now he has hired a first-time NBA head coach, a first for the Wizards since Michael Jordan controlled their front office.
Sheppard is carving a new path with the Wizards and has found someone with an impressive resume to lead the charge. It just probably has to work sooner than later.