Entering his third season as the Wizards owner, Ted Leonsis met with the media on Thursday night inside the Patriot Center at George Mason University. In the first of a two-part series, Leonsis talks about the transformation of the Wizards and the expectations he has for them this season and beyond.
Ted Leonsis: Nice to see everyone. If feels great to be back watching basketball and having our season ticket holders come and get to watch the team play. Those of you who have been out here you see theyre playing pretty hard out of the gate pretty fast. Im really impressed with how Randy Wittman is handling the team. Theyre practicing with purpose and with vigor and I like what I see so far. Im upbeat and I cant wait for the season to start. All right, lets just have you guys fire away questions.
Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld was talking the other day about the transformation of this team in the last three years. Can you talk about the job hes done with this team during that time?
Its very sobering to have to enter a new season 2009-10 basically where John Wall is your most tenured player. That was by design and we knew wed have to rebuild the team and we did it fast. Im pleased that were able to pull the Band-Aid off quickly. Now we have to see how this team gels and what we need on an ongoing basis to keep improving the team. But to start the 2012-13 season with basically not a single player on the roster from when I bought the team has anybody else ever tried that? I put it on my blog the other day and no one answered my question. Im too lazy to do the research but I dont know if theres another team in the NBA thats had that kind of roster turnover and done it as quickly and, frankly, all within budget. Im happy with the work to date. I think were constructing the team the right way. I think we have a lot of size, a lot of youth, young players with a lot of upside and now we have some veterans.
Youre around the team more than I am and I think you sense it. This team is very upbeat but serious. They know that theyre going to play hard and theyll get minutes. The coach has done a really, really good job to say you will earn your minutes by competing. And I think thats the first big step, culturally, to the road to, first, respectability, then competitiveness, then competing for a playoff spot, then being in the playoffs, then going deep in the playoffs, and building a team that can be generationally a contender. The team we had last year, at times I felt bad. With the injuries and the young players, there were some nights we would have a 15 or 20 million dollar payroll on the floor. We had one game we played five rookies. The fans went through a lot with us. I was honest with them that it as going to be painful, but its turned into good things.
I look at the Nationals arc and it gives me hope and strength. I look at the Nationals losing a hundred games and finishing in the basement, and picking high and bringing in a free agent and making an astute trade, and then they wake up one day and theyre winning the pennant. We see data, we see exemplars of teams that have gone through tough times and theyre able to fight through it and keep their core together and add to it in the right way and thats what Im hoping we can do with the Wizards.
A lot of people are going to make a lot of mileage out of your comment that another lottery appearance would be unacceptable. Given the way youve had to rip the band-Aid off and given the developments with John Walls injury, have you had to temper that or readjust?
No. Remember, 14 teams are in the lottery, right? We would all find it unacceptable if we finished with the second- or third-worst record in the NBA this year. That would be a failure and the failure would start with me. I think were in a much better position. I think we will get better because our young players have now been seasoned. We forget, John played a lot of games and Jordan Crawford the other day said to me, Im a vet now. Im a senior member of this team. Im going to take players under my wing and teach them the ropes of what its like to be in the NBA. A lot of our young players didnt have any mentoring. They were thrown into the pool and it was trial by fire. But they got their experience.
Again, I look back to my own experience with the Caps. One year, Brooks Laich played 108 games, I think it was. He played every game in the NHL and then we sent him down to Hershey. The second year the improvement level was dramatic because he had played so much. I think were going to see that from our young players, that they will take that next step up. I do think the additions we made in the offseason Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor, A.J. Price, Martell Webster, Jannero Pargo, these are mature, serious guys who have been around the league and they know this is a good situation. When you talk to them theyre happy to be here. They think the organization is sound and committed. They love the fan base, they love the city, they love what were doing here training at George Mason. They love what were doing with their locker room when they go back to Verizon Center. So having players who want to be here and understand they have a responsibility to each other I think will help the team to improve dramatically.
What has struck you about some of the new players?
I think they understand that winning is a lot of fun and camaraderie and teamwork and being coachable is all part of that process. Ive been struck by the immediate bonding and chemistry these players are having one, because of the character that we recruited during the interview process but secondly, because they know if they bond and play as a team theyll have more success. Everyone on the team has had great success in another life, but many of them have also been on the bottom and they have that perspective. So there are a lot of players here that really want to do whats necessary to win. I find that refreshing. I dont hear a lot about, Me, my contract, my free agent year. I hear, What can we do to contribute? Whats expected of me? What will be the definitions of success for the team? That to me is a big cultural step that weve taken.
Is the next step to have big-name free agents to see that and believe the same thing, about the Wizards as a destination team?
I think facts should be looked at carefully, especially this offseason, about what free agents actually moved. We do a lot of research and theres a lot of activity with offer sheets, but most of the really good players who are young stayed with their teams. So for me the first thing we have to do is make sure our core we know who is central to the team and that we retain our players. I think that is vital, that we can draft and develop and retain. Secondly, I think because we have so many assets, at some point there will be the right trade that helps us to fill a need that we see. Then I am very confident that when the times right and the opportunitys right, that well be able to get a transformative player by not trading, by not having to finish high in the draft. And that would be via free agency and theyll want to play here because theyll see the upside of the team and their contribution would bring it to the next level. They understand that Washington is a fantastic market. They understand we have a great building in a thriving neighborhood, the quality of life here is really high, and well spend the money.
All of the stars and moon will have to align the right way. Im not shy about spending money and going and getting the right player, but I think its a process of draft, develop and retain, add through trades, get free agents at the right time, and free agents will know when its time they can make a difference. This offseason wasnt that time. They dont know what our identity is yet as a team. They dont know whether well be an up-and-coming team. I will say over the last month I have felt, just in talking to people around the league and talking to people on other teams, people think we have capacity to be a good team, certainly compared to our last couple of years. That the team is trending in the right direction.
Now, you need health. You obviously need to have a full squad. But I think people like what we have. I think people are starting to notice players like Kevin Seraphin. I think the buzz around the league is this could be a sleeper, really, really good player. I think people place a lot of value on our draft last year. The buzz around the league is that Bradley Beal could really step in and play significant minutes. Hell have to earn his time, but he has the demeanor and the poise and the physical gifts, and frankly, the shot to help the team. So you have young players who are improving, you have veterans who have joined the team, and you add in a rookie who plays a position and plays a game that we need to help us open the floor a little bit and kind of let the big guys have more room. We have a couple players that start hitting three balls and being able to hit spot-up jumpers and our team dynamic changes. We think Bradley, Webster, Cartier Martin, these are all players who can shoot and we didnt have much of that last year.
So I feel were doing the right things. I know that the fan base and, frankly, the media would like the magic wand waved and have a team with three superstars here overnight. But I lost the magic wand. Im having to do it the old-fashioned, authentic way, which is I think they way youre built to last. If you look at the history of the league, the teams that are in the playoffs for a decade are built around young players. Theyre core, drafted players. We had three years worth of a lot of high picks and were hoping to see those players grow before our eyes. And I also think the fans appreciate teams like that. They get more emotionally invested in watching young players develop. Theyre more popular. Theyre more connected to the community. You can remember what they look like.
I was just spending a little bit of time with John Wall and his bodys changed. Hes thicker and bigger, his voice is deeper. Hes becoming a man. And then you realize he should still be in college, right? Would he be a senior? Yeah, he came out his freshman year. These are young men and their upside is terrific and as we all know in the NBA 26, 27 is peak year. Webster has been in the league eight years? How old is he, 25? Hes very, very upbeat and positive about the team, about the role he can play, about his health. He has a great shot. So I think some of the pieces that weve added, hopefully theyre healthy, hopefully their role is really appreciated.
The coaching staff is different this year. This is a much more rigorous camp. The reason they have officials here is because we dont want to be outshot like we were last year at the foul line. There were games last year where we would have five more field goals than the other team and the other team would go to the foul line 25 or 30 times more than we would. I think its very smart to have high-paced practices and bring in refs and show the young players what gets called in the NBA and what doesnt. Its a combination of all those little things and those investments that were making that we think will incrementally improve the team so that this year its very respectful, very competitive and why not try to make the playoffs? Just a couple games over .500 seems to get you there and thats how the guys are looking at it. So who am I to argue to with the players and the coaches? They feel upbeat, so thats why I feel upbeat.