The Washington Wizards need a general manager, and a few prayers also wouldn’t hurt. Once mired in mediocrity, they can’t even get past the bouncer now. Operating under an owner’s playoff mandate, they’ve endured five straight losing seasons, failing to be a postseason stowaway in four of them.
And guess what? They could actually be winning now and holding leverage to build a stronger contender with the NBA bracing for a wild couple of offseasons as franchises adjust to parity-driven wrinkles in the new collective bargaining agreement.
The Wizards aren’t seeking a new executive to lead their basketball operations simply out of a desire to win. Owner Ted Leonsis is on the hunt because the organization doesn’t know how to. Any blurry vision the Wizards have of steady, perennial contention — and we’re talking a much higher level than the John Wall-Bradley Beal era — requires an executive with the kind of team-building dexterity the franchise hasn’t seen since its 1970s heyday.
As the playoffs progress without them, the Wizards are at the beginning phase of their process to replace Tommy Sheppard. They have a fluid list of candidates, and The Washington Post reported two intriguing executives who have had exploratory talks with the Wizards: Trajan Langdon, the New Orleans GM who is second to David Griffin on the Pelicans’ organizational chart, and Milwaukee Bucks assistant GM Milt Newton.
Tim Connelly, the president of the Minnesota Timberwolves and a Baltimore native who turned down the Wizards four years ago, is considered a possibility again, even though he’s just one year into a deal that pays him $8 million per season. Golden State’s Bob Myers, who could be a free agent soon, will be every needy team’s dream for as long as he’s available.
But considering the Wizards’ situation, there’s an ideal fit who should be among those pursued by Leonsis: New York Knicks GM Scott Perry. After Sheppard was fired, Post beat writer Ava Wallace mentioned Perry following conversations with people from around the league. Over the past few weeks, I’ve also asked around about what Washington should do, and Perry is consistently among the first names mentioned.
Why? The reasons are as layered as the Wizards’ problems. Perry, 59, has spent the past 23 years developing a reputation as a multidimensional talent evaluator capable of matching the right players to a team’s identity, a versatile thinker who doesn’t view the task as merely contending or rebuilding and a connector with the skill set and personality to lead and be the glue for an organization.
Those happen to be the Wizards’ three most essential needs. This roster, a collection of spare parts around Beal, has no identity. Leonsis, always methodical, has begun his search with an open mind but is unlikely to be moved by candidates who prefer a teardown — especially if they can’t envision other fruitful paths. The front office needs a shift in culture and a boost in spirit after what several holdovers have portrayed as a tense and sometimes coarse work environment over the past few years.
Similar to Langdon, Perry could be enticed by the opportunity to be the top basketball executive. It took until 2017, when New York called, for Perry to be given true No. 1 responsibilities. But in 2020, the Knicks fired team president Steve Mills and later replaced him with former agent Leon Rose, who oversees basketball operations. Perry and Rose have worked well together. The Knicks, in the middle of a conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat, have made the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. They have a solid and fiscally responsible roster, with Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle providing all-star-caliber production on tolerable contracts. They have the trade assets and flexibility to go fishing for a superstar if the right one becomes available. Instead of relying on their brand and their city as the only attractions, the Knicks are starting to look desirable for their competence.
That’s the Perry effect, even when he doesn’t have final say. He did some of his best work with Joe Dumars in Detroit, helping to shape a roster full of underappreciated, tough and unselfish pros who made six straight Eastern Conference finals and won a title in 2004 over a Los Angeles Lakers team featuring Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. He spent a year with the Seattle SuperSonics before the team relocated to Oklahoma City, helping Sam Presti with a draft that included snagging Kevin Durant and trading Ray Allen to start a rebuild that propelled the organization to a long run of contention.
Perry also has worked for Orlando and Sacramento. He was with the Kings for just three months before the Knicks offered that dream opportunity, but during that short tenure he was critical to a formative offseason that included drafting De’Aaron Fox, who has blossomed into the franchise player of a promising young team.
Leonsis knows the Wizards need a fresh approach. They also need a new vibe. Those initial talks with Langdon and Newton should help crystallize what’s possible. Perry is just as worthy of consideration.
Leonsis famously declared that he spoke with 78 leaders from sports, business and politics before making several hires and restructuring the Wizards four years ago. Well, that was a fun exercise. Now they’re on to the next thing. To replace Sheppard, the process will be streamlined, and it needs to be fast with the June 22 draft approaching. It needs to find someone who can marry long-standing knowledge of NBA team building with current best practices, all while mixing in the agility to maneuver swiftly should franchises react erratically before luxury tax penalties become more punitive.
Over the past five seasons, the Wizards have gone 161-229, a .413 winning percentage. That’s basically the equivalent of a 34-48 record every year, almost tank-level bad without the benefits of tanking. The Wizards haven’t drafted higher than ninth during this period. They’re probably picking in that same territory in this draft; they have the eighth-best odds to land the No. 1 pick in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.
This is how stuck they are: In 2018-19, the Wizards went 32-50, making them one of 14 teams to win fewer than 40 games. Nine of those 14 teams made the playoffs this season. The Wizards went 35-47.
Trying to lose is unethical. But trying to win this way — with Beal on a $250 million deal with a no-trade clause, Kristaps Porzingis making more than $30 million per season and ready for an extension and free agent Kyle Kuzma probably seeking $25 million annually — is absurd. The Wizards are desperate for someone with an itemized plan for success.
When Perry came to the NBA in 2000, Dumars was recasting a 32-50 team still reeling after losing Grant Hill in free agency. A year later, the Pistons won 50 games and started a streak of eight straight playoff appearances. It was a run in which Dumars and his front office nailed almost every decision.
That’s the environment into which Perry was born, and everywhere he has been, he has shown portions of that team-building acuity. It leaves you wondering what he could do with full control over a substantial period of time. The Wizards would be wise to find out.