Wizards’ plan is now clearer, even if it pushes a winning product further down the road

LAS VEGAS – The Washington Wizards are looking to create something new out of the disparate pieces they put together in search of a different and better future. Justice dictates that they be given the opportunity to realize their vision. It’s nonetheless a big ask from a fan base that has waited so long for a championship-caliber team.

Great report from Athletics Josh Robbins on Saturday detailed the team’s vision and planning for the short and long term future. Essentially, the Wizards aren’t going to tear everything down to the studs this season, or maybe even the next, as it seemed they would when Michael Winger, Will Dawkins and Travis Schlenk took over. Instead of going all-in on being as bad as possible next season to have the best chance to secure a high draft pick in 2024, the Wizards will seek to create a culture of competitiveness, a creation of camaraderie and spirit, where to play and Being together for nine months brings occasional joys and successes along with the bumpy experiences of losing. It makes more sense to bring back Kyle Kuzma (on a deal for less money than originally reported – shocking), instead of sending him out with Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porziņģis.

You can look at the 2017-18 Clippers for insight.

That season’s team shed Chris Paul in the 2017 offseason, traded him to the Rockets and ended the “Lob City” version of the Clippers led by CP3 and Blake Griffin, who was set to enter free agency. After the Paul trade, the Clippers solemnly pledged their allegiance to Griffin in their free-agent pitch to him, indicating they planned to retire his jersey, among other hosannas. Ultimately, Griffin stayed and signed a five-year, $171 million contract with the Clippers. (The team’s enthusiasm for Griffin’s presumed place in the pantheon of history became, well, a little much.)

But midway through the 2017-18 season, the Clippers traded Griffin to the Pistons for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanović, Avery Bradley and two draft picks. They finished a ho-hum 42-40 and didn’t make the playoffs. But one of the two picks the Clippers got for Griffin ultimately went to Shai Gilegous-Alexander, who became the primary piece that went out in the summer of 2019 trade with the Thunder that brought Paul George to LA. And George coming to LA brought Kawhi Leonard to LA

See: The idea of ​​another “interim building” in DC, even if it’s just for a year or two, makes my ears bleed. But it makes more sense when you realize how poorly the 2024 draft is currently viewed by most around the league. There will be players to take with a top-five pick next June, but their potential upside may be lower than that of the guys who went high in the 2022 and ’23 drafts. Therefore, a full-blown ’23 tank job has less appeal.

It makes more sense when you realize that Kuzma’s $90 million contract smartly drops as it goes, making a potential redirect in a year or two more palatable to other teams if that option becomes desirable to the Wizards. That makes more sense when you note the Wizards’ desire to take pressure off their 2023 first-rounder, Bilal Coulibaly, by keeping Kuzma, along with newly acquired Jordan Poole, to handle the bulk of the scoring next season. That will give Coulibaly the freedom to develop his off-ball game and learn without the lofty expectations of being a top-10 pick, which should make him a more versatile player down the road.

For the longest time, Beal wanted to be in Washington. And then he wanted to move on. It’s more likely than not that Kuzma will be on his way soon enough as well, at least before his next contract expires. But it’s not today. At least next season, Kuzma will get what he’s wanted for a while: The opportunity to be the man on a team rather than a supporting role. The Wizards will reflect his sensitivity, his work ethic, his professionalism.

“I think I’m in touch, just understanding that Washington still wanted me,” Kuzma said Saturday, describing his reasons for re-signing. “After having my exit interviews, Ted (Leonsis) just emphasized to me that he wanted me to be here. I knew that because I think in my last two years here, I’ve very transparent, an honest person. The whole organization, from Ted, the previous regime, the new regime, they are very transparent people. I never really had much to worry about on that front. But I would still go through the process. I think I made the right decision.”

Kuzma reflects the strategy the new regime is pursuing: Everyone in the organization building on what they were before to become something bigger.

Winger and Dawkins were trusted lieutenants in winning organizations. They are now tasked with creating one on their own.

Kuzma and Poole won rings with the Lakers and Warriors, respectively, but as important role players, not stars. They will now be the voices in their own dressing room. Will Kuzma flourish as a top prospect after sharing that load with Beal and Porziņģis, or will he falter? Can the reserved, 24-year-old Poole tap into another part of himself to become an effective leader, or will it come off as performative to teammates?

Coulibaly was, of course, an accessory this past season at Metropolitans 92, the French side that featured Victor Wembanyama. He is now a first-round pick in Washington, the first offer from Winger and Dawkins of the type of player they believe will be transformative.

Tyus Jones, acquired from Memphis in the three-team trade that sent Porziņģis to Boston, has been viewed around the league for some time as a future lead guard. The future is now.

“The personalities of the group, the character of the group and the passion they have for basketball, I think Michael and I talked about that early on — finding guys that want to jump and go for it,” Dawkins said. “And we feel like we got it in a short amount of time.”

Many in the media session Saturday wanted Poole’s thoughts on how he left Golden State after a less than successful season for him. He didn’t talk much last season about the now-infamous fight he had with Draymond Green in October, when Green punched his then-teammate after they exchanged verbal (un)pleasant matters during a practice. Poole, at least for now, still preferred to pivot forward, which was understandable since his new role at DC will center him, rather than Green or Stephen Curry, as a face of the franchise.

“It’s great that we got Kuz back,” Poole said. “It’s really big for us. The two of us have the championship experience that we have, he comes from the Lakers and I won a ring in Golden State. We have a lot of young guys that are ready, that are skilled, that have work ethic. We have a lot of people who want to compete. And I think that’s something that’s extremely exciting, not only for our team, but for the city, for the fan base. We’re going to play, we’re going to fight hard, night in and night out. Just leading with the knowledge I have. You’re not doing it alone. Everyone’s in it together. And we’re going to build a great culture.”


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That word “culture” gets thrown around to the point of being useless in this league, but its absence in Washington for so long has made anyone with real experience with a winning organization look like a prophet. Whatever you think of Green’s hitting and whatever impact it may have had on Poole, the latter was nonetheless a key member of a title-winning team in Golden State. He was envisioned as a bridge between the franchise’s championship generation and its future, worthy of a $128 million extension last fall. The Warriors wouldn’t have gotten a fourth ring without Poole making some big, big shots in the 2022 spring playoffs.

“It’s a beauty, to be able to start from scratch,” Poole said. “Apply what you know. We all come from different places. Winger comes from the Clips. Will comes from the Thunder. Being able to just, collectively, as a unit, as a team, apply what we know, all of our different organizations, situations. Bringing that to a new team, to a new culture, that’s the beauty of it. That’s what we love to do. And that’s why I think we’re all so bought and excited on the future.”

Even with Kuzma and Poole and Jones all on board, the immediate future isn’t promising. Washington still has the look of a non-playoff team next season, though it might not be a complete bottom feeder.

Coulibaly’s debut with the Wizards’ summer league team on Saturday went as expected for a rookie who doesn’t turn 19 until later this month. His stints in traffic were marred by bigger, more experienced wings who stripped him of the ball more than once. His drives to the basket, often and-one in the French LNB, fell harmlessly to the Thomas and Mack Center floor against the Pacers. As with Wembanyama, who struggled in his NBA debut Friday with the Spurs, it will take Coulibaly time. Everything is going to take time.

Alchemy always took time, whether it ultimately produced gold or slag. Always, with this franchise, it takes time. Any impatience on the part of the DMV to wait even longer for the payout or for the playoff is duly noted.

(Top image of a Wizards summer league huddle with Bilal Coulibaly (#0): Logan Riely / NBAE via Getty Images)

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