The Wizards Avoided Firing Their Crappy Head Coach, By Promoting Him
2:51 PM EST on January 25, 2024
The Washington Wizards made a coaching change Thursday, relieving Wes Unseld Jr. of his duties and elevating assistant coach Brian Keefe to the role of interim head coach. Spoiler incoming! This shuffling of sideline personnel will, in the near term, change precisely dick: Washington's roster remains an unholy mess, and the organization has not been very shy about telegraphing that for the time being they prefer losing to winning. Unseld doesn't move the needle much as a head coach—most coaches don't—but at no point in his two-plus seasons on the job has he had what anyone would consider a serious team. This year's squad was his least serious yet. Even Gregg Popovich can helm a loser if most of what he's given to work with is dogmeat.
The timing is interesting. For one thing, under owner Ted Leonsis the Wizards have developed a reputation for being almost unbearably reluctant to shake up their leadership ranks. Flip Saunders was the last Wizards coach to be canned mid-season, 17 games and 15 losses into a third consecutive season of appalling dysfunction, back in 2012. Randy Wittman was given most of five seasons and virtually all of John Wall's athletic prime to prove that a bunch of antiquated basketball concepts couldn't lift the team out of mediocrity, and then Scott Brooks was given a full five seasons and most of Bradley Beal's athletic prime to verify that the same concepts would gain nothing in efficacy if spearheaded by a much shorter person. Ernie Grunfeld held onto his position atop the team's basketball operations for 16 seasons of such elaborate slapstick self-sabotage that by the end his continued employment started to seem like some sort of long-running prank, like there was a non-zero chance that Andy Kaufman himself was hiding under the Grunfeld costume.
Then there is the fact that this change was made on the morning of a home game, in the middle of a back-to-back, at about the midpoint of a season when so far as anyone can tell Washington intends to lose basketball games. The suddenness of it, when the Wizards cannot and very much do not hope to unlock a winning formula for this roster, points to a decision that, for once, was as mutual as the people doing the terminating would like everyone to believe. Team president Michael Winger said in a statement Thursday that the move was made after the team and Unseld "determined together that a change was needed" after "several thoughtful conversations." It seems very unlikely that Washington would've bothered with this messy upheaval if Unseld hadn't been clawing at the door like a golden retriever trapped in a burning house.
Notably, Unseld has not been shoved out altogether. Winger said that the coach has been transitioned into an advisory role, where "his vast basketball experience will be an asset to the front office" as it engages in whatever bizarre self-defeating rituals the Wizards traditionally mistake for the execution of their next doomed turnaround. There's a very strong likelihood that retaining him in a front-office position is a purely face-saving maneuver: Unseld Jr. is the son of Wizards icon Wes Unseld, who led the then-Bullets to the franchise's only championship in 1978 and later served as an executive, and then as the team's head coach, and then as its general manager. Hiring Unseld Jr. as the team's head coach, after he'd distinguished himself across 16 seasons in various assistant coaching jobs, was something of a big deal for the Wizards, who are always a little too conspicuously eager to arrogate a little unearned goodwill by sidling up with anyone who carries local credibility.
Unseld Jr. was the first Wizards head coach since, my God, his own father in 1988, to come into the job without the baggage of having failed and been fired as the head coach of some other team, and so it was possible to feel entirely hopeful about what his hiring might mean for the team's basketball product. He has mostly looked utterly overwhelmed by the challenges of convincing collections of mismatched players with competing priorities to even pretend to play defense, and his teams have never been anything better than lousy. Still: Bouncing Unseld Jr. from the job less than three years after his big inspirational coming home party, and just months after the team picked up an option to extend his contract through the end of next season, can only be an embarrassment for Leonsis, which possibly explains why the team has opted to shove him into a broom closet rather than out onto the street.
Unseld Jr. won't be the only son of a local basketball icon who slid sideways or backwards into a job with the team's current front office regime: John Thompson III, son of legendary Georgetown men's basketball coach John Thompson, concluded his own ho-hum coaching career with a move into the Wizards' executive class, as senior vice president. The Wizards love to grab up a guy with local connections and ram him into a leadership roll. The dreaded Antawn Jamison, rickety third leg of history's most ridiculous big three during his five-plus years with the team, is now a senior director of player personnel. In 2014 the Wizards infamously hired up David Adkins, who'd coached a teenaged Kevin Durant at Montrose Christian Academy in Bethesda, as part of their howlingly misguided multi-year project to recruit Durant back to his hometown.
Unseld Jr. might be a fine head coach under the right circumstances, which is the most that can be said of approximately 95 percent of everyone who ever held that job title. He might also make a fine front-office advisor, just as Thompson might make a fine corporate officer and Adkins has proven over time to be a fine coach (Jamison is a bozo forever). But the Wizards have not been able to offer the right circumstances for more than a few minutes at a time to anyone at any level of their basketball operation for just about as long as I have been alive. Even if you accept that Unseld possesses what Winger describes as "the characteristics we value in our organization," you would have to be a crazy person to treat anything valued by this demented organization with anything other than profound skepticism, if not outright terror. These are, after all, the Wizards; they are on a two-decade uninterrupted streak of focusing each next decision on how best to paper over the horrors of the last one.