Perspective | The truth — and young talent — will set the Wizards free (2024)

About 90 minutes before the first night of the NBA draft, while inching forward on Sixth Street, I wondered why so many people would attend a Washington Wizards draft party. While navigating the packed concourse of Capital One Arena, I speculated why so many families were dropping money on chicken tenders and hot dogs ahead of watching the televised draft with strangers. Then while witnessing fans shout with glee when the Atlanta Hawks chose a different French guy with the No. 1 pick, allowing their favorite team to select their preferred French player at No. 2, I questioned what kind of person cares so much about this franchise.

The first round of the draft attracted real, live fans of the 15-win Wizards. I can’t say whether these were people who just love free indoor cooling on a day that simmered over 90 degrees. Or whether they had truly heard of the name “Alexandre Sarr” before Wednesday night. But the Wizards do have a loyal community willing to fill roughly 80 percent of the arena’s lower bowl and take a seat around every circular table on the floor. They remain committed to this team because they’re hearing the truth.

General managers and executives of professional teams can use the Wizards, post-2023, as a case study. You can build and maintain fervor within the fan base by embracing the simple tenet of truthfulness. If the face of the franchise is making a quarter-billion dollars but the franchise itself lives in the gutter, make the hard (but really, easy) decision and trade him. If you need to tear down the whole thing, do it so that the season is historically miserable. And if you need to draft and stack the roster with teenagers, then the coaching staff better be fluent in Gen Z slang and know how to accurately use “rizz” in a sentence.

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Furthermore, let everyone know you’re doing this. Especially the paying customers.

The Wizards do not have to outright declare “We’re going to suck!” Yet the brain trust that starts with President Michael Winger and General Manager Will Dawkins are not confusing fans with delusions of competing for that ninth play-in seed. Previously, that seemed like the ceiling around here with Bradley Beal as the star, Tommy Sheppard as the longtime executive and Ted Leonsis as the owner too busy trying to expand his sports empire to truly care about the basketball product.

But since he remade the leadership team following the 2022-23 season, Leonsis has given his new basketball decision-makers something he should have shared years ago: the license to tell the truth. There were moments, since they took over last summer, when the new Wizards leaders might have tried the status quo and sidestepped reality (“I know that when I close my eyes and I envision a roster in late September … I see Brad on that team,” Winger told me last June, days before he traded that same Brad to the Phoenix Suns). However, Washington executives have kept things honest with their actions. They have signaled a long and patient rebuild: waiving veteran Delon Wright, trading starting center Daniel Gafford to get a first-round pick, removing the interim tag from Brian Keefe and giving him power as coach with a focus on player development.

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On Wednesday night, Keefe, like any dad excited about draft parties, snapped a few photos of his daughter near the tables filled with fans. He wasn’t mobbed or even approached. During these building years, the players will be fresh-faced and the coach will be relatively anonymous.

But fans, they aren’t clueless. They can take the truth, that their favorite team needs to get younger — and, by default, lose a ton of games. Losing with an intention is a much better option than being strung along season after season with no hope for a long, fun playoff run in sight.

Though one seems far on the horizon, that didn’t stop Peter Susko, of Baltimore, from attending the draft party. Susko and his friend Tom Linder-Pacheco sat in Section 113, Susko wearing one of those team giveaways from last season, and Linder-Pacheco, who was busy checking his stocks before the ninth pick, in a gray shirt with “Washington Wizards” spelled out in Hebrew. (He learned the Wizards had traded Deni Avdija, the inspiration for that shirt, while on the Metro heading to Cap One.)

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While Susko was telling me how “ecstatic” he was about the Sarr pick, audible gasps could be heard around him when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced Purdue big man Zach Edey as the ninth pick.

“That’s crazy,” Susko paused and observed. He then went back to sharing his excitement about the Wizards. No, not excitement so much over the upcoming year but for more tanking. Nothing crazy about that. He’s just being honest.

“Oh, I want Cooper Flagg next year,” Susko said about the projected No. 1 pick of the 2025 draft. “I want Sarr, I want [Bilal] Coulibaly to do well, and then I just want to keep building. I see this down the line because I grew up outside of Cleveland before LeBron. So I’ve seen the games before that and what it’s all worth. So I’m very, very patient.”

Same could be said for A.J. Lea, a 26-year-old who stood up and applauded when the Wizards got Bub Carrington with the 14th pick. Lea’s originally from New Jersey but signed up to be a Wizards season ticket holder when he moved to downtown D.C. Last year, he spent good money to watch the Wizards go through their worst season in franchise history, and yet Lea didn’t mind.

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“We’re definitely on the come up, so it’s not like I’m a bandwagoner,” Lea said. “We’re starting from the bottom.”

The basem*nt doesn’t have to be so bad, especially when everyone in the building understands that they will be there for a while. As long as the Wizards’ leaders keep sharing that truth, then Wizards fans will keep showing up. For draft parties in June, meaningless games in January and, hopefully, for the long term when this sacrifice finally pays off.

Perspective | The truth — and young talent — will set the Wizards free (2024)
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