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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