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Tommy Sheppard Deserves His Credit For Wizards Turnaround

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Before the Washington Wizards hired their current President and General Manager, Tommy Sheppard, the post of general manager was held by Ernie Grunfeld, a pariah among Wizards fans. Grunfeld held this position from 2003 until 2018 when he was finally relieved of his position after a disastrous few years at the helm towards the end of his tenure. The nail in the coffin was his decision to trade away a promising young player in Kelly Oubre for a half-season of Trevor Ariza in a desperate bid to make the playoffs and keep his job. The decision to move on from Grunfeld was a welcome one from Wizards fans, most of whom felt Grunfeld was a poor evaluator of talent and had a tendency to throw too much much at the wrong players, such as his decision to sign Ian Mahinmi to a four-year $64 million contract in 2016 after he averaged less than 10 points per game the season prior.

Grunfeld’s tenure was riddled with similar questionable decisions such as extending Andray Blatche and trading for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, many of which often prioritized short-term gains and short contending windows to no avail. Grunfeld always seemed to be impatient in his decision-making process. While the great general managers of the league like Daryl Morey and Sam Hinkie are constantly playing a long-term game of chess by stockpiling assets and young talent, the Wizards under Grunfeld would seek out eye-popping but inconsequential moves like trading for a half-season rental of Bogan Bogdanovic or Bobby Portis.

The addition of Tommy Sheppard was met with a spirit of optimism by the Wizards community. After all, anything was better than Grunfeld, but that optimism was quickly replaced by frustration when Tommy Sheppard appeared to throw former Wizards superstar John Wall under the bus during a radio interview with DC station 980 The Team, being quoted as saying. “When I say we’re building around [Beal], John’s been away for two years, it’d be unfair to say, ‘Hey this is John’s team.’ Bradley’s put in the work, he’s been available, John didn’t ask to be injured but the NBA marches on.”

Many Wizards fans considered this to be a slight to Wall. After all, he had been the franchise player for over half a decade up to that point and had been working towards rehabbing his Achilles for over a year and a half. Sheppard’s comments could certainly be perceived as disrespectful or as kicking Wall when he is down, and Wall was reportedly upset about it as well. He was traded shortly after the incident in the deal with Houston that brought Russell Westbrook to Washington. 

Westbrook had an up-and-down year with Washington last season that eventually culminated with them barely making the playoffs as the last play-in seed. He averaged a triple-double for the season for the fourth time in his career, but it was clear he would never be the MVP caliber player he once was again, and the Wizards had to contend with his massive contract if they wanted to move him. Luckily, Sheppard had some tricks up his sleeve and managed to flip Westbrook, Chandler Hutchinson and some second-round picks into Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and a sign-and-trade for Spencer Dinwiddie who have all been massive contributors this season and a huge part of their franchise-best start to the season. 

It is often very reflexive for NBA fans to judge big transactions and trade across the NBA very harshly in their immediate aftermath. These knee-jerk takes are often very emotional and end up ringing untrue as time goes on. Tommy Sheppard’s tenure as the Wizards GM is a perfect example as to why these kinds of moves cannot be properly judged until some time has passed, as most executives have a long-term plan they are trying to execute. In this case, each move he made starting with the Wall trade was part of a larger plan to build a more complete team around Bradley Beal. Sheppard plays the long game with the best of them and seems to understand the importance of taking several steps and compiling assets to achieve a personnel goal. 

Considering John Wall has not seen the floor this season and the Lakers are not looking the part of the contender, it seems as though Sheppard played his cards right as the Wizards sit at fourth in the Eastern Conference. Here’s to hoping he continues to make similar intelligent long-term plans going forward. 

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and ESPN

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