Wes Unseld Jr.

Wizards Executives, Players Discuss Head Coaching Change

Appearing at a press conference on Thursday, Wizards executives Michael Winger and Will Dawkins explained that the decision to move Wes Unseld Jr. out of his head coaching position was more about how the team was losing than about the losses themselves, according to Ava Wallace of The Washington Post and Josh Robbins of The Athletic.

“We can tolerate losing a game in which we were competitive for 48 minutes. We can tolerate losing a basketball game where we see the team improving as a collective,” Winger said. “In the absence of 48 minutes of competitiveness, in the absence of collective team basketball progress over the course of time, irrespective of the individual improvement, we have an issue to address. And that’s sort of how that conversation unfolded.”

As Robbins observes, the defense performed especially poorly under Unseld. The Wizards’ 120.5 defensive rating at the time of his removal was just narrowly better than Charlotte’s league-worst mark of 120.6. Additionally, Robbins says, the effort level from several players was inconsistent and players repeated the same mistakes from game to game, en route to a 7-36 start.

“We know our energy wasn’t always there,” Dawkins said. “We know our competitiveness was not always there. And defensively, there were nights that were unacceptable, and those are things that we want to continue to work on. And we think that a fresh voice right here, right now, is what we need, and also (is needed) for the betterment of the future.”

Unseld wasn’t technically fired — he’ll remain in the organization in an advisory role in the front office. Winger stated on Thursday that the Wizards are “a better organization because of Wes,” adding that multiple players showed real growth under the first-time head coach.

However, as Robbins points out, the comments made by some Wizards players on Thursday suggested they felt they weren’t held accountable enough under Unseld. Corey Kispert and Kyle Kuzma were among those to cite accountability when they were asked about assistant Brian Keefe taking over Unseld’s role.

“B.K. keeps it real 100 percent of the time, and he’ll say it like it is and he won’t hold back for better or for worse,” Kispert said. “And we need a good dose of that in this locker room. If we want to grow and be the team that we think we can be for the remainder of the season, we’ve got to be held accountable for what we do and we don’t do.”

“I think as a whole right now, we’re looking at an organizational mindset shift,” Kuzma said. “And that’s defense and accountability, and I think those are the first two building blocks that’s going to be an emphasis and something that we kind of lacked over the past 40-something games.”

While the Wizards went just 77-130 under Unseld, it’s worth noting that the rosters during his tenure weren’t exactly loaded with talent. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, who had Unseld on his staff for several years in Denver before the Wizards hired him, lamented the fact that his former assistant never got to coach the team he interviewed for, since Bradley Beal missed so much time with injuries and Russell Westbrook was traded shortly after Unseld was hired (Twitter link via Tim Bontemps of ESPN).

The Wizards will see if Keefe can get more out of the current roster during the second half and then plan to conduct a full-fledged coaching search in the offseason. Presumably, if Keefe does well the rest of the way, he’ll receive consideration for the permanent position. Washington’s new head coach said on Thursday that his focus will be on improving the team’s play on defense.

“Defense has to be our calling card,” Keefe said, per Wallace. “We have to see improvement on that. That’s going to be my first step. And I’ve always thought that. Basic tenets of the NBA — I like unselfish basketball; I like spacing; I like making the simple play. But our focus right now, for us, is we got to see growth defensively.”

Keefe, who served as an assistant for the Thunder from 2007-15, earned praise on Thursday from one notable member of that team for his work in Oklahoma City.

“He wouldn’t take any credit for it, but he taught me everything I know as far as how I approached shootarounds, practices, games, workout sessions, just everything,” Suns star Kevin Durant said (Twitter video link via Will Clayton). “He just changed my mindset. I met him when I was 18, so from 18 probably to 25, he was grooming me into the player that I am today, so I owe a lot to him. … He’s easily one of the most influential guys that I know in this business, in this game, and in life, so I got nothing but love and respect for B.K.”

Wizards’ Wes Unseld Jr. Transitioning To Front Office Role

8:44am: Top assistant Brian Keefe will serve as the Wizards’ interim coach for the rest of the season, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski (Twitter link). As noted below, the team will conduct a full search for a permanent head coach during the offseason.

7:08am: Wes Unseld Jr. will no longer serve as the head coach of the Wizards, according to the team, which announced in a press release today that Unseld will transition to a front office advisory role.

“After several thoughtful conversations with Wes, we determined together that a change was needed for the benefit of the team,” Wizards president Michael Winger said in a statement. “Wes embodies the characteristics we value in our organization, and his vast basketball experience will be an asset to the front office as we progress toward our long-term goals. We are thankful that he will continue his contributions to our organization and community.”

“I am grateful to have served as head coach of the Washington Wizards,” Unseld said. “I look forward to this new opportunity to work toward our organization’s continued progress.”

According to the Wizards, an interim head coach will be named shortly, with the club launching a “comprehensive” search for a new permanent head coach in the offseason.

The son of former Wizards star Wes Unseld Sr., Wes Jr. was hired as the Wizards’ head coach in 2021 after having served as an assistant in Washington, Golden State, Orlando, and Denver from 2005-21. He led the club to a 35-47 record in each of his first two seasons and was off to a 7-36 start in 2023/24, for an overall record of 77-130 (.372). Washington didn’t make the playoffs or the play-in tournament during his tenure.

The Wizards conducted an overhaul of their front office during the 2023 offseason, dismissing former president of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard and hiring Winger and general manager Will Dawkins to run the show. With a retooling of the roster also underway, there was a sense that the new executives may want to bring in their own coach and that Unseld’s days on the Wizards’ bench might be numbered.

After losing at home to Minnesota on Wednesday, the Wizards will host the Jazz in the second end of a back-to-back set on Thursday night, so they’ll name an interim coach at some point today.

Unseld is the second head coach to be replaced this season — and this week. The Bucks parted ways with Adrian Griffin on Tuesday.

Southeast Notes: Fultz, Howard, Coulibaly, Heat

Magic starting point guard Markelle Fultz has missed seven straight games with left knee tendinitis, and it appears for now he’s still being limited to individual workouts, per Jason Beede of The Orlando Sentinel (Twitter link).

“We’ll continue to evaluate him on a daily basis to see how he responds to the treatment that he’s getting,” head coach Jahmal Mosley said. “…[We’ve] practiced once, which I think you saw him the other day on the court, [he was] doing some individual work with our guys. That’s the extent of what he’s doing.”

When healthy, the 6’4″ vet has produced, averaging 11.4 PPG, 4.0 APG, 3.4 RPG and 1.2 SPG across five games for Orlando.

There’s more out of the Southeast Division:

  • Magic rookie lottery pick Jett Howard starred in his first game with Orlando’s NBAGL affiliate, the Osceola Magic. He notched 34 points, including seven made triples, per Alex Kennedy of Basketball News (via Twitter). “The G League is a lot of fun,” Howard said. “My teammates made the game easy for me. Getting reps in with these guys during Orlando’s training camp made it a seamless transition. It’s been great to be part of winning teams with the Magic.”
  • Wizards rookie forward Bilal Coulibaly‘s growth is already impressing head coach Wes Unseld Jr., writes Ava Wallace of The Washington Post. “He’s done really well with the amount that we’ve thrown at him,” Unseld said. “The opportunity is probably something he’s dreamed of, so he seems like he’s in a great place. We always talk about the potential of a rookie wall, whether that’s physically or mentally, but he’s not showing any sign of that. He’s just attacking each day. He’s showing a lot of consistency in his work, and that’s paying dividends on the floor.” The 6’6″ wing was selected with the seventh pick in this June’s draft. He’s averaging 8.4 PPG on .506/.439/.619 shooting, along with 3.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.9 SPG and 0.8 BPG.
  • Heat All-Star center Bam Adebayo and swingman Duncan Robinson are both questionable to suit up against the Knicks on Friday, per Ira Winderman of The South Florida Sun Sentinel (Twitter link). Adebayo is dealing with a hip injury, while Robinson is suffering through a thumb ailment.

Wes Unseld Jr.’s Job With Wizards Not In Jeopardy

After finishing with a 35-47 record in each of the last two seasons, the Wizards are off to a 2-9 start in 2023/24. However, third-year head coach Wes Unseld Jr.‘s job with the organization isn’t in any immediate danger, according to Josh Robbins of The Athletic.

Given that Washington missed the playoffs in Unseld’s first two years with the team and then overhauled the front office this past offseason, there was a sense that it may just be a matter of time before the new decision-makers, including team president Michael Winger and general manager Will Dawkins, bring in their own coach.

However, Robbins says that management is prepared to give Unseld “significant leeway” this season, since player development – rather than winning games – will be the main goal in the short term. Although the Wizards have lost nine of their first 11 games, key young players such as rookie wing Bilal Coulibaly and recently extended forward Deni Avdija have taken steps forward in the first few weeks of this season, Robbins observes.

Coulibaly is shooting the ball well (.523 FG%, .471 3PT%) and handling challenging defensive assignments while logging 25.7 minutes per night. Avdija, who received a four-year, $55MM contract just before the season began, has been a full-time starter and is averaging career highs in PPG (12.7), APG (3.9), FG% (.519), and 3PT% (.412), among other statistical categories.

Winger and Dawkins have also asked Unseld to help Jordan Poole and Kyle Kuzma get comfortable with being Washington’s go-to offensive options, Robbins says. While Poole’s play has been shaky so far this season, the front office didn’t expect his transition from complementary player in Golden State to primary scorer in D.C. to be seamless, so they’re willing to be patient.

As Robbins acknowledges, the pieces on the Wizards’ roster don’t all fit together smoothly, especially from a defensive standpoint, which may make it more challenging for management to evaluate Unseld’s performance and determine whether he’s the long-term answer as the club’s head coach. The team has no desire to make a change in the near future, but Unseld’s future in Washington beyond the 2023/24 season isn’t assured, Robbins adds.

Even though the Wizards have exercised Unseld’s option for 2024/25, that only guarantees that he’ll be paid next season — not necessarily that he’ll still be on the sidelines, Robbins writes. That decision may come down to how the Wizards’ youngsters develop and the strides that players like Poole and Kuzma make in their new roles during the rest of this season.

Wizards Exercise Wes Unseld Jr.’s Option For 2024/25

The Wizards have a new front office regime, but their head coach appears to be safe. According to Ava Wallace of The Washington Post, the Wizards have exercised their option on Wes Unseld Jr.‘s contract for 2024/25.

Unseld signed a four-year deal with a team option in the final season when he was hired in 2021. The Wizards have gone 35-47 in each of his two seasons at the helm, a .427 win/loss percentage.

A Maryland native, Unseld got his NBA start with Washington as an assistant. He also had assistant jobs with Golden State, Orlando and Denver before earning his first head coaching job with the Wizards a couple years ago.

There has been some speculation that Unseld might be on the hot seat due to the team’s lackluster results in his first two seasons. However, as Wallace writes, with the Wizards in the midst of a rebuild, the new front office has publicly shown support for the 48-year-old head coach.

“Whether it’s in selecting players, participating in the conversation vis-à-vis trades, he’s just been awesome,” president Michael Winger said last week of Unseld. “And from a coaching perspective, he’s going to coach his butt off. We know that. He’s registered with us countless times how excited he is about this team, how excited he is to figure out — it’s going to be really hard for him — but figuring out how to blend those young players with the vets.

We’re going to have streaks. We’re going to have ebbs and flows throughout the course of the season. There’s no evaluation on that kind of thing. If our young players are getting better, if our vets are contributing, if the culture is in a good place, I think that Wes is doing exactly the job that Wes wants to do.”

Wizards Notes: Unseld, Starting Point, Muscala, Omoruyi

While the Wizards‘ new front office has publicly shown support for incumbent head coach Wes Unseld Jr., who was hired by the previous regime, Josh Robbins of The Athletic believes 2023/24 will be a “make-or-break season” for Unseld’s future with the organization.

As Robbins writes, the Wizards have gone 35-47 in each of Unseld’s two seasons at the helm. After trading away Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis, Washington likely took a short-term step backwards, so evaluating Unseld by the team’s record might not be prudent.

Robbins is interested to see how much buy-in Unseld will be able to coax out of the many new faces on the roster, and if the team’s young draft picks will develop over the course of the season, among other evaluation tools.

Here’s more on the Wizards:

  • In the same mailbag article, Robbins thinks Tyus Jones, who was acquired from Memphis in the Porzingis trade, has the edge for the starting point guard job heading into the season. His main competition is likely Delon Wright, who has been in trade rumors this offseason. As Robbins notes, Jordan Poole should have plenty of on-ball opportunities as well, even if he’s technically slotted as the shooting guard.
  • Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington evaluates what big man Mike Muscala will bring to the Wizards. As with Jones, Muscala was acquired in the Porzingis deal (from Boston). The 32-year-old makes quick decisions and is a strong off-ball mover in addition to being a threat from deep, Hughes writes.
  • The Wizards signed forward Eugene Omoruyi to a two-way deal last month after he split last season with the Thunder and Pistons. According to Bijan Todd of NBC Sports Washington, Omoruyi is a late bloomer, as he didn’t start playing basketball until he was a sophomore in high school. The 26-year-old is known as a strong cutter and versatile defender, Todd notes.

Winger To Have “Carte Blanche” Over Wizards’ Roster

New team president Michael Winger, who had been the Clippers’ GM since 2017, will have “carte blanche” to potentially overhaul the Wizards‘ roster going forward, writes Ava Wallace of The Washington Post.

Winger has been tasked by owner Ted Leonsis to develop an “identity” as well as “setting a fresh direction for the team,” according to Wallace.

Echoing a previous report, Wallace says Winger will hire a “general manager-type figure” to focus solely on the roster, though she suggests that may happen after the draft and free agency. Winger is also responsible for the WNBA’s Mystics and the G League’s Capital City Go-Go, which are owned by Leonsis’ Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the parent company that controls the Wizards.

The veteran executive is expected to be “empowered” to change the team’s coaching staff as well, Wallace reports. However, it sounds unlikely that head coach Wes Unseld Jr. will be going anywhere, at least for now, as he’s a favorite of Leonsis and is well-regarded within the Wizards, sources tell Wallace.

Wallace writes that Winger has a positive reputation amongst work colleagues, who refer to him as a “crucial voice” within the Clippers who is known as a “fair negotiator ready to lead his own organization.” While the 43-year-old didn’t speak to the media as a Clippers executive, Wallace hears he’s a “strong internal communicator” who’s adept at breaking down advanced concepts, including aspects of the CBA, into “layman’s terms.”

He’s really good at seeing the whole board,” one executive who has worked with Winger told Wallace. “He’s super organized and really smart. Process-driven to the nth degree. He won’t be reckless or let his team make big mistakes.”

Southeast Notes: Unseld, Wizards, Hornets, Vincent

Wes Unseld Jr.‘s coaching staff will be undergoing some changes this offseason, according to Ava Wallace of The Washington Post, who reports (via Twitter) that assistant coaches Alex McLean and Dean Oliver won’t be returning to the Wizards for 2023/24.

As Josh Robbins of The Athletic tweets, McLean had been with the Wizards for the last six seasons and also served as the team’s director of player development. Oliver is an analytics specialist and had been with the franchise for four years.

The expectation, as Wallace notes, is that Unseld will have more power to shape his coaching staff and to hire new assistants going forward.

Here’s more from around the Southeast:

  • The Wizards‘ search for a new head of basketball operations is moving at a deliberate pace and is still in the early stages, according to Robbins (Twitter links), who says the team continues to compile a list of viable candidates for the job. Washington hasn’t hired an outside firm to run the search, which has been led more by ownership, Robbins adds.
  • The Hornets are hosting a group of six prospects for a pre-draft workout on Friday, the team announced in a press release. Led by Eastern Michigan forward and former five-star recruit Emoni Bates, the workout will also include Meechie Johnson Jr. (South Carolina), Jaylen Martin (Overtime Elite), Landers Nolley (Cincinnati), Jalen Slawson (Furman), and Trey Wertz (Notre Dame).
  • After evolving into more of a play-maker and distributor during his time in Miami, Heat guard Gabe Vincent has been asked to take on more scoring responsibilities since Tyler Herro went down in the first round. As Anthony Chiang of The Miami Herald writes, Vincent – an unrestricted free agent this summer – has responded admirably, averaging 15.1 points per game and making 40.4% of his three-pointers since the playoffs began.

Wizards Fire GM Tommy Sheppard

Tommy Sheppard has been dismissed as general manager and president of the Wizards, the team announced in a press release. The move comes after another disappointing season for Washington, which compiled a 35-47 record and failed to qualify for the play-in tournament.

Sheppard, 53, had been with the organization since 2003, starting as vice president of basketball operations. He had served as GM since 2019 when he was promoted to replace Ernie Grunfeld. He received an extension and a promotion to president of basketball operations after the club got off to a strong start in 2021/22.

The Wizards never won more than 35 games in a season under Sheppard’s tenure and they reached the playoffs just once, advancing through the play-in tournament in 2021 before losing to the Sixers in the first round.

“Failure to make the playoffs the last two seasons was very disappointing to our organization and our fans,” owner Ted Leonsis said in a statement explaining the move (Twitter link from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski).

Sheppard’s departure means someone else will handle key financial decisions in what should be an important summer for Washington. Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis are both expected to turn down their player options for next season and test free agency, although Porzingis is involved in extension talks with the team.

The new GM will also try to improve on Sheppard’s performance in the draft, as Washington holds the No. 8 spot heading into next month’s lottery.

Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon and Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly are names to watch as the Wizards launch their search for Sheppard’s replacement, tweets Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today.

The front office shakeup won’t affect Wes Unseld Jr., who just completed his second season as head coach, according to Wojnarowski (Twitter link), who hears from sources that Leonsis remains a strong supporter of Unseld.

Wizards To Retain Wes Unseld Jr. For 2023/24

The Wizards were officially eliminated from the postseason race on Tuesday night and have fallen short of their preseason expectations, but the team’s disappointing season won’t cost head coach Wes Unseld Jr. his job.

Unseld will continue to hold his position as Washington’s coach entering the 2023/24 season, reports Josh Robbins of The Athletic. President of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard confirmed as much on Tuesday.

“He is our coach moving forward,” Sheppard said of Unseld.

Unseld, whose contract runs through the 2024/25 season, was hired by the Wizards to replace Scott Brooks in 2021. In his two seasons since taking the head coaching reins, Unseld has led the team to a 69-92 (.429) overall record and has missed the postseason in back-to-back years.

As Robbins notes, Unseld arrived in D.C. with a reputation as a defensive tactician, but hasn’t improved Washington’s unit, which placed 20th in defensive rating in the last season under Brooks. That ranking dipped to No. 25 last season and is at No. 20 again this year.

Despite the team’s underwhelming performance under Unseld, he has supporters, according to Robbins, who suggests that the Wizards’ relative lack of two-way players and injury woes have been factors in their struggles. Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porzingis, and Kyle Kuzma have played together just 35 times this season, Robbins observes, though it’s not a great sign that Washington hasn’t even played particularly well in those games, going just 16-19.

It will be a big offseason for the Wizards, who are expected to attempt to negotiate new contracts with Porzingis and Kuzma and are in position to secure a top-10 pick in the draft lottery. I’d expect the club to enter the fall anticipating a playoff-caliber season, with Unseld facing increased pressure to deliver on those expectations.