The Wizards could (should?) learn a lot from the NBA’s final four — the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs — who each took different paths to elite-team status but share a common trait: championship-minded organizational cultures. For those franchises, winning isn’t some sort of theoretical pursuit; it’s their around-the-clock purpose.
Physically gifted, smart players provide the granite-strong foundations of the Celtics, Heat, Thunder and Spurs. But it’s also the superstars’ roll-up-their-sleeves-and-work determination that has elevated those teams to prize-claiming contention. That’s where the Wizards have historically been most lacking: picking the right people around whom to build.
They’ve squandered millions on players (Gilbert Arenas and Andray Blatche top the list recently) who were more interested in tomfoolery than titles. It’s about evaluating a person’s entire makeup — not just his ability from three-point range. The Wizards have done that as poorly as the Redskins follow the NFL’s salary cap instructions.
“It’s a process,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said Friday in a phone interview. “But [having good] leadership is very important.”
Grunfeld just completed his ninth season in charge. He received a contract extension in April (the Wizards posted their fourth consecutive sub-.318 winning percentage under him), and we’ll soon learn whether owner Ted Leonsis is delusional or a visionary regarding Grunfeld: next season, the team’s fourth in its most recent rebuild, the Wizards should show significant progress.
Grunfeld and Leonsis are convinced that the team will succeed by following the same draft-centric model popularized by the fast-rising Thunder. Under rock-star General Manager Sam Presti, the Thunder hit high-pick grand slams: forward Kevin Durant and guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden are incredible individually and even better collectively. Forward Serge Ibaka, the league’s leading shot blocker, was a late-first-round gem.
Presti stockpiled picks while also putting the Thunder’s financial house in order. With the cap flexibility he created (the extension Westbrook signed in January still leaves room for the team to offer Harden and Ibaka long-term contracts without entering luxury-tax territory), Presti engineered roster-improving trades: acquiring bruising center Kendrick Perkins from the Celtics completed the team’s starting lineup.
The Thunder’s scouting success, however, is only part of why its story is such a page-turner. Here’s the rest: Presti and his staff correctly identified high-ceiling players who also had the hearts and minds of winners.
Durant and Westbrook are all-NBA players who practice as hard as guys on 10-day contracts. Even when the Thunder is off, they’re usually the first in the gym and the last to leave.