These are not your father’s Washington Wizards. Heck, they’re not even his father’s Washington Wizards.
For Wes Unseld Jr., Year Three of his tenure as Wizards coach represents yet another change of direction for the franchise. Scoring star Bradley Beal is gone — his 22.1 career ppg and 11 years of experience were traded in June to Phoenix. Kristaps Porzingis was dispatched the same day to Boston, the 7-foot-3 shooter wrapping his stay in D.C. after just 82 appearances.
Any pretense of Washington as a playoff aspirant exited with them.
In Unseld’s first two seasons, the Wizards finished with identical 35-47 records. That marked 10 playoff misses in the past 15 seasons – and 25 of the past 35, starting with the six years Unseld’s father held the job (1988-94). Of course, Washington thrived during the elder Unseld’s Hall of Fame playing career, reaching the postseason 12 times in 13 years, including four Finals trips and the 1978 NBA title.
The reset button has been pressed again. Fans won’t find “Cap Flexibility” and “Draft Assets” as names on the revamped roster, regardless of how valued they are as pillars of Washington’s mid- to long-term future. Instead, they’ll see and presumably root for holdovers such as Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert, along with new faces Jordan Poole, Tyus Jones and rookie Bilal Coulibaly.
All the while hoping that 2022 draftee Johnny Davis’ second NBA season doesn’t sting as badly as his first – or as much as former Wiz lottery pick Rui Hachimura’s impressive playoff work last spring after a January trade to the Lakers.
New team president Michael Winger and new general manager Will Dawkins stopped short of a complete teardown – NBA rules, after all, require that somebody gets paid that $122.4 million minimum team payroll. So Poole and Kuzma will split the first $53 million while Jones, Daniel Gafford and Landry Shamet divvy up the next $36 million or so.
How much bang for those bucks Washington receives will fall on those players, sure, but also on Unseld. He won’t be judged on making the playoffs, but with bosses in Winger and Dawkins who didn’t hire him, he likely will be evaluated on how well the Wizards’ young players develop, how long they take to jell as a team and how hard they play at both ends.
During the recent NBA coaches meetings in Chicago, Unseld spoke briefly with NBA.com about a 2023-24 season of changes and challenges.
NBA.com: What excites you the most about this fresh start?
Wes Unseld Jr.: Well, essentially, we have a new team. A lot of changes. A ton of roster turnover. You lose a franchise player in [Beal], a familiar face [in Porzingis]. You can’t discount the impact Brad has had for us in the past. But we got some pretty good talent back. Some [salary] cap flexibility, some financial flexibility.
So it gives us a lot of latitude moving forward. With a lot of young talent – seven guys under the age of 27 — it’s going to feel different, it’s going to look different. But that’s the exciting part about making over this roster.
What is the key to knitting together a team of new faces?
It’s going to take time. I don’t think you can fast-track that. We have to be diligent in how we develop. Some guys will move a little quicker than others. But I anticipate guys like Deni, Corey, [Gafford], guys who’ve been with us, are going to take a big step forward.
Jordan is extremely talented – a young 24-year-old – who I think has a ton of room to grow. [Kuzma] is now a 27-year-old vet, so he’ll fall into that leadership role. So there are a lot of positives injected into that. Anytime you have change, it can take a few months; hopefully not that long, but it takes time to coalesce.
What will you want to see from Jordan Poole specifically? He comes from a great organization in Golden State, and now he’s unshackled. How do you make sure that stays within a team concept?
There’s a balance. He’s got to understand his role. He’ll have an expanded one with us, where we’ll lean on him quite heavily. But with that, there comes responsibility. It’s in the leadership department. It’s understanding how to not just do things for yourself on the floor but get your teammates involved. He’s played at a high level with some tremendous players. He knows, I think, what winning looks like. You can’t discount that.
Kuzma has been a target of trade speculation most of his career, which suggests that other teams have valued him. Now that the Wizards are the ones paying him – a reported four-year, $102 million deal – and moving him up in the pecking order, what will that mean for your team and for him?
That’s really encouraging. We got him in a trade two summers ago. Here’s a guy who’s 6-10, is able to shoot off the bounce. He’s been able to unlock his game [with] the freedom we gave him. And I still think he’s just scratching the surface. He and Jordan are going to spearhead that leadership group. He did a little bit of it last year, now he’ll need to do it consistently.
Which of your players do you anticipate taking the biggest leap this season?
Corey Kispert is a guy to keep an eye on. Deni is another one. Two guys who’ve been with me for a couple years. Have had great summers. Hopefully, they’ll stay healthy but both those two should take a giant leap.
What have you learned about yourself in this job?
You learn each year that you have so much more to learn. That’s a given. But we’ve got a new team, quite a bit of new staff, so it’s going to be growing together. A new front office kind of gives us a bit of a reset for how we want to do things organizationally. Different standards. But I think it leads to a buzz, a lot of excitement.
How will you and your team approach the new In-Season Tournament?
It’s a bit of uncharted territory. Two games [in the Knockout Round] will come into play where you’re really not sure who your opponent will be, but I think they’ll blend it in as soon as possible. It is exciting to see where it takes us. Look at the Play-In for the playoffs. This last season was unbelievable. I was a little bit of skeptic when that first came in, but to see it play out, it was tremendous. It creates a buzz. And some parity too, giving some other teams a chance.