How Wizards execs viewed the season and the future: ‘That plan has not changed’

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How Wizards execs viewed the season and the future: ‘That plan has not changed’

WASHINGTON — When Monumental Basketball president Michael Winger and Washington Wizards general manager Will Dawkins started their new roles almost a year ago, they told everyone who would listen that it would take time, and require sacrifices, to reconstruct the Wizards into a perennial winner.

On Wednesday, several days after the franchise posted the worst record in its history, Winger and Dawkins acknowledged that Year 1 of their rebuild featured plenty of growing pains. However, they added they saw growth within the organization and made clear that they intend to stick to their plan of building through the draft.

Winger likened the task ahead to the grueling day-to-day work a farmer undertakes to transform over time a tract of inhospitable land into fertile fields.

“We have to continue to focus on tilling the field,” Winger said. “Meanwhile, there is no tolerance organizationally for mediocrity. There is no tolerance for shortcuts and absolutely no forgiveness for poor effort. And so, to the extent that you saw that this season, it is intolerable, and it’s something that we’re going to talk about with our staff and our players in the offseason, and we’ll preach these things very heavily going into training camp.

“We feel very strongly that we have the right fans, that we have the right principles, that we have the right market to build a sustainably great team,” Winger added later. “We set out to do that a year ago. That plan has not changed at all.”

To put it in plainer English: The days when the Wizards would jeopardize their draft position (and their long-term future) by trying to shoehorn mediocre talent into fringe playoff positions remain over. But at the same time, Winger and Dawkins don’t expect a repeat of the first half of the 2023-24 season, when the Wizards went 7-36 under Wes Unseld Jr. and lost an inordinate number of games in humiliating blowouts.

“It definitely wasn’t a linear season,” Dawkins said. “There were mistakes. There were setbacks, miscues. But at the end of the day, those hard times created growing pains, and through the growing pains, you grow and you learn.”

Citing the individual growth of young players such as Deni Avdija, Bilal Coulibaly and Corey Kispert as positives, Dawkins and Winger said they consider the team’s new player-development program — in which staff members from all units within the basketball operations department help players reach specific goals throughout the season — as a major sign of progress.

Other areas Dawkins said he’s pleased with include expanded family-services offerings for players and infrastructure enhancements.

Winger and Dawkins addressed some specific issues during their hour-long session with reporters and team broadcasters. Here are the highlights:

Tyus Jones’ free agency

It’s no secret that unrestricted free agent-to-be Tyus Jones feels valued by the Wizards and that Wizards officials value him. When the team did not trade him before February’s trade deadline, it indicated there is mutual interest in Jones re-signing with Washington in July.

Indeed, on Monday, Jones told reporters he would like to remain with the Wizards and that he envisions himself as a starter.

But, at the same time, the team’s circumstances — particularly, Jordan Poole’s circumstances — have changed since the trade deadline. Interim coach Brian Keefe moved Poole to the bench, and that move put the ball in Poole’s hands more often. Poole also returned to the starting lineup after Jones suffered a sprain in his lower back.

After the All-Star break, Poole’s play improved dramatically. He averaged 20.9 points and 5.8 assists per game and made 36 percent of his 3-point tries.

That increased success seems to show that Poole needs the ball in his hands to have any modicum of success with the Wizards.

But what does that mean for Jones? Jones typically is at his best, and is best for his team, when he initiates an offense.

There’s no question that Jones and Poole get along with each other and respect each other, but can a team play well if both are on the court at once? After all, both cannot have the ball simultaneously.

Winger was asked a version of these questions Wednesday, and his answer revealed that he, too, considers those questions valid.

“You’re hitting upon what will be a very complex conversation for us,” Winger said. “Jordan does like having the ball in his hands, and he’s really good with the ball in his hands. Tyus likes having the ball in his hands and is also very good with the ball in his hands. I mean, it is our job, along with the head coach and the coaching staff, to figure out how to make that work. Both are really good basketball players and really good people. …

“There are 29 other teams that know (Tyus) is a good player and a good dude, and he’s going to have a lot of options. He deserves to have those options. He deserves to have those conversations. He did express to us an interest in coming back, and we expressed to him an interest in bringing him back. We’ll have those conversations in July, but I truly have no answers for you right now as to how we make all of Jordan’s best and all of Tyus’ best coexist. Once we have a coaching staff in place, that’ll be one of the very first things that we roll up our sleeves and try to figure out.”

Can Tyus Jones (pictured) and Jordan Poole each be at his best if they’re both on the roster next season? (Petre Thomas / USA Today)

The coaching search

Winger said that Wednesday would be the first day that he and his front-office staff would discuss the upcoming coaching search at length. That comment confirmed a recent report by The Athletic that said team officials would spend much of this week laying out their search process.

Winger explained why they’re just starting now.

“That was intentional,” Winger said. “It was basically our way of giving our players and this coaching staff the freedom to be who they are without having to read about names or process or visits that we’re making or whatever the case may be.”

Dawkins added: “We’ll look around, and we’ll definitely be inclusive. At the end of the day, I think we’re going to find the right person who has the right core characteristics to lead this organization and lead this team, the things that we value most, and will be able to lead us and move us forward in this current phase that we’re in as a basketball club.”

That “current phase” is one in which team officials will want their coaching hire to excel in developing players and holding players accountable. Those are two areas in which key front-office personnel think Keefe excelled during his 39-game tenure. Keefe is expected to be a candidate for the job, team sources told The Athletic.

A key offseason

Offseasons are critical opportunities for all players but especially for young players who are entering their second, third and fourth seasons.

Coulibaly, who soon will have the cast taken off his fractured right wrist, has a big opportunity to improve in the months ahead, even if he makes the French national team in the upcoming Summer Olympics.

“I think a lot of our players have massive summers in front of them, none probably bigger than Bilal, just the steps he needs to make,” Dawkins said.

(Top photo of Jordan Poole: Geoff Burke / USA Today)