Blood In, Blood Out: A Restructured Wizards Front Office
Pat Connelly, after seven seasons with the Wizards, went to Phoenix to be one of two assistant GMs (or a “master evaluator,” as he’s been dubbed). It was a promotion from director of player personnel, a title which Connelly held for two seasons in D.C., after being a Wizards scout for five seasons. Jerry Sichting, after assistant coaching in Washington for one season, followed Connelly to join Jeff Hornacek’s coaching staff in Phoenix.
Flip Saunders hired Milt Newton to be his general manager in Minnesota. Newton was vice president of player personnel in Washington and now says, “This is a very much more expanded role and I look forward to the task at hand.” When Saunders hired Newton, he said the most important thing outside of analytics is the character one brings into an organization. Flip then tasked Newton to “get people to perform at higher levels than they think they can perform.”
Washington’s 2012-13 rehabilitation coordinator / assistant athletic trainer, Koichi Sato, followed Newton. With the Timberwolves, Sato will be the director of sports performance. The Wizards’ training staff has been maligned by fans for years, but don’t blame Sato, he’d only been with the franchise since 2008. Flip’s son Ryan, however, won’t be moving to Minnesota this season. The younger Saunders is probably content with his position as an assistant on Randy Wittman’s staff, and it’s not like Flip is just going to put his son on Rick Adelman’s bench anyway.
Finally, as far as the count goes, the Wizards scouting staff lost Mike Wilson, a nine-year veteran of the franchise, to the Dallas Mavericks. He was director of college scouting with the Wizards but kept his main home in Austin, Texas.
What does it all mean? If it’s cheaper in business to keep your own employees, the defections aren’t good. But with an organization sporting a track record like the Wizards—second-most losses in the NBA (491) over the last 10 seasons (Ernie Grunfeld’s decade tenure)—maybe a bit of turnover is a good thing. Team majority ownership changed hands in the summer of 2010, after all.
Perhaps, these are also signs that the Wizards are trying to get better, and are willing to pay for it. John Wall got paid, obviously. Last year Leonsis told Wittman to bring in whomever he needed. And Wittman did, in the form of assistant coach Don Newman (via the San Antonio Spurs) and the now-departed Jerry Sichting. The Wizards were also one of the first teams to implement SportsVU cameras, and now they will be put in all NBA arenas. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the Wizards are the most capable to best translate the data, but they just might have a leg-up on the competition in an attempt to do so.
Still, the prevalent fodder has been: why are these franchises really hiring people from the maligned Wizards?
The obvious answer is that successful people can be part of bad organizations. You’ve either been in the situation yourself before or are not far removed from one. The new employers hired individuals, not the bad record and reputation of the Wizards.
Another angle is that with one year remaining on Grunfeld’s contract, the writing of inevitable change hangs over the basketball operations staff, even if mini-extensions to Grunfeld’s reign become the temporary norm. But each individual has their own reasons for moving on, and such are often driven by increased money and responsibility. Newton fondly recounted the 22-year path it took for him to fulfill his dream of becoming an NBA GM in his welcoming press conference. Then he embraced his newfound decision-making freedom as if he’d been under a rule of thumb in Washington; Flip made it clear that, as Minnesota’s president of basketball operations, he still would have final authority on basketball decisions.
Cheaper to keep ‘em? No, Ted Leonsis surely relished this change—an opportunity to shift the organization more toward his vision, which was essentially outlined via a team press release titled, “Wizards Re-Structure Front Office.”
Tommy Sheppard interviewed with the New Orleans Hornets in 2010 before they hired Dell Demps as GM. Sheppard was also said to be a candidate for the Denver Nuggets job that 2010 summer before they went with Masai Ujiri, who is now in Toronto. (You wonder if Sheppard would have traded Nene for JaVale McGee had he been in Denver.) Sheppard’s name was also mentioned with Denver’s GM search this past summer, but the Nuggets ultimately went with their second choice, Tim Connelly, brother of both Pat Connelly and current Wizards assistant coach Joe Connelly. Tim spent about a decade with the Wizards, working his way up from assistant video coordinator in 1999 to director of player personnel when he left in 2010 to join New Orleans as an assistant GM.
In perhaps part of a succession plan for Grunfeld, sooner or later, the Wizards have promoted Sheppard from vice president of basketball administration to senior vice president of basketball operations. Sheppard has had a hand in a bit of everything during his 10 years with the Wizards, from a friendly voice in the ear of players to hands-on international scout to frequenter of the increasingly popular MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
Marc Eversley was hired by the Wizards from the Toronto Raptors as vice president of scouting and is seemingly a restructuring arrival from Newton’s departure. Eversley has an interesting background. A native Canadian and college basketball player at Urbana University in Ohio, Eversley started out in retail. He managed some Nike stores in Ontario, Canada, then moved to the corporate office of Nike Canada, where he spent six years before moving to Nike’s corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, for four years. He was part of developing “brand relationships” with players like Steve Nash, Elton Brand, Vince Carter, and Gary Payton. Hired by the Raptors in 2006 as director of basketball operations, Eversley once attained the title of assistant general manager (to Brian Colangelo in 2010-11), but spent the last two seasons with Toronto as simply a vice president of college scouting. Eversley was a fallout from the hiring of Masai Ujiri in Toronto and will begin his time in Washington with the same title he most recently held there.
The Wizards will get a further boost in the scouting department, on paper. Replacing Connelly with the director of player personnel title is Frank Ross, who’d been director of east coast scouting for the Oklahoma City Thunder over the last six years. Replacing Wilson is advanced pro scout Greg Ballard, who most recently was a scout with the Atlanta Hawks but found himself on the outside of the new Danny Ferry regime in Atlanta. Ballard was a member of the 1978 Bullets championship team and serves as a further attempt by Leonsis to embrace the franchise’s history.
Perhaps the most intriguing hire of the restructuring is Thomas Knox. With the title of director of player performance and rehabilitation, Knox essentially replaces an assistant athletic trainer, Sato. Eric Waters (head athletic trainer), Drew Cleary (strength and conditioning coach), and Corey Bennett (assistant athletic trainer) were the other members of the medical support staff (aside from team doctors Marc Connell and Barry Talesnick) listed in last season’s media guide. Knox comes from the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. The namesake for this institute comes from the renowned Dr. James Andrews. This move says a lot about an increased dedication to preserving healthy players from Leonsis. (Now, has he checked the snack pantry at John Wall’s new mansion yet?)
[Also note, per today’s double-bad news of Chris Singleton going down for 6-to-8 weeks with a fracture in his foot, and Emeka Okafor being declared out indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck, the Wizards, like most teams ever, have yet to nail down injury prevention.]
The Wizards also promoted Ed Tapscott to vice president of player programs from director of player programs/scout; Pat Sullivan to assistant coach from advance scout; and Brett Greenberg to director of basketball analytics/salary cap management from basketball operations assistant/video coordinator.
These comings and goings (and internal promotions) form an imprint on the franchise, so they are important to cover, but to what end? In a sport that’s becoming increasingly entrenched in analytics (much to the chagrin of some—at least when writing staunchly marries itself to the figures), the specific effectiveness of NBA front offices will continue to be an unknown.
A blog, DenverStiffs.com, wrote a post titled, “A look at Tim Connelly’s draft resume,” after the Nuggets hired him and proceeded to simply list all the players drafted by the Wizards and Hornets during Connelly’s tenure with those respective franchises. “Could a better pick of been made?” the post asks in regard to Washington’s selection of Kwame Brown in 2001 when Connelly was a second-year scout with Washington, as if it has some sort of insight on his future decision-making in Denver.* But these are the absurdities we are left with … unless, that is, Connelly hires Brown to mentor JaVale McGee.
We don’t know if Newton pounded his fist on a conference room table and said, “NO JAN VESELY!” We have no clue if Connelly (either Tim or Pat or both) convinced Grunfeld to hitch his wagon to Oleksiy Pecherov. We’re not sure where the buck stopped when it came to the professional development of JaVale McGee (or the management of momma McGee; Sam Cassell tried, evidently). We’ll never know who on Grunfeld’s staff was pro-cutting ties with Gilbert Arenas by any means necessary (even if it meant reporting him to the league, and the police). Who ultimately convinced Otis Smith to take on Arenas in Orlando? Who was the proponent of flipping Rashard Lewis for Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor? Was anyone supposed to notice that Javaris Crittenton took airplane card games a little too seriously? Who really “discovered” Andray Blatche in the second round?
As much fun it would be if each season each team shared the draft boards of five front office staffers, we only know two certainties about the entire operation: it’s only measured in wins and losses (luck of health be damned); and the brunt of blame for ill will falls almost solely on the head of the beast, Grunfeld, while nearly all the credit for success goes to the players, and to a shared extent, the coaches. But that’s the name of the game, why they pay team decision-makers the big bucks, and part of the cost of having scarce jobs in an highly-desirable industry that’s known for high turnover.
If the Washington franchise does turn itself around—not just a courtesy playoff appearance in 2013-14, but something sustainable—restructures like this are part of the equation. Only time, and luck, will tell if Leonsis is crunching the right numbers or if there will be more “restructuring” in the unforeseen future.
*Assuming that such a track record was accurate, Denver Stiffs inaccurately includes Devin Harris, Lazar Hayward, and Nemanja in Connelly’s “resume”—all players were technically drafted by the Wizards, but at the behest of other teams and their draft boards.