For the past 16 years, everything with the Washington Wizards front office was micromanaged by team general manager Ernie Grunfeld. This wasn’t a collaborative process with a leader trying to find a consensus and then making the final call. In fact, this wasn’t like any other NBA front office, sources have told NBC Sports. Grunfeld held the job for 16 years not by his results (they only made the playoffs half the time and never got past the second round) but because he controlled the flow of information and knew how to feed that to owners in a way that flattered him.
This spring, Ted Leonsis finally saw past that and realized it was time to shake up the Wizards. He fired Grunfeld, but was left with another question: How should an NBA front office be structured?
Leonsis came off as waiting for the right leader — Tim Connelly decided to stay in Denver, Masai Ujiri stayed in Toronto (Leonsis said there were no talks with him) — but he says he was busy trying to understand how other teams structured their front offices. Leonsis called 78 people, including former president Barack Obama, according to Candace Buckner of the Washington Post.
Over the next 3 ½ months, Leonsis said he spoke to 78 people in professional sports and beyond, seeking to learn where he had erred and how he should reconstruct the Wizards into a modern sports organization. He picked the brains of the youngest general manager in Major League Baseball history, a former NFL executive of the year who led his franchise to a Super Bowl win and even the 44th president of the United States…
“It was a very, very long gestation process,” Leonsis said. “It wasn’t what people were expecting, which was ‘It’s a small pool of candidates; you’re going to hire a replacement for the last executive who was there.’ I knew I would get grief on it, but if I did the work, my partners and the executive team would feel good about it.”…
Obama has apparently never been shy about giving Leonsis his opinion of the NBA, according to someone with personal insights into their relationship. The two spoke in late April about the importance of building the right culture for the Wizards. Obama championed the “beauty of the game, teamwork, sacrifice” and surrounding franchise stars with complementary pieces. Obama, who has taken on a role with the NBA-backed Basketball Africa League, also encouraged Leonsis to invest in scouting in Africa.
Gregg Popovich of the Spurs, Micky Loomis of the Pelicans and NFL’s Saints, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and others were on the list as well.
In the end, the Wizards kept in-house candidate Tommy Sheppard as the GM, and he has shaken up how the organization does business.
If you’re a Wizards fan looking for a silver lining, this is it — Ted Leonsis has taken a lot of steps this spring and summer along the NBA ownership learning curve. Go ahead and argue it should have happened earlier if you want, for Wizards fans at least it is happening. That is the best news for a potential long-term improvement in the franchise. Things will start getting done in a way that is best for the franchise and not in protecting the GM’s job.
But it’s going to take a long time and some smart moves to turn this franchise around.