The Leonsis Interview with Mike Wise: Some Thoughts In Response

Washington Post columnist Mike Wise sat down with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis for a 45-minute interview. The transcript is here, and I recommend reading the whole thing. I’m going to pull out a few of Ted’s comments that I think are worth commentary and/or analysis.

First, though — kudos to Ted for doing the interview at all. I disagree with much of what he says, but I appreciate his openness and willingness to face reporter questions. It’s more than a lot of owners do.

Leonsis: Wall, Crawford and Beal, that’s a pretty good three-guard rotation. We want to bring in a seasoned backup point guard. … And so what our belief is, we’re hoping John Wall and Beal become real stars that we keep and kind of build around them. Can Wall and Beal and Crawford one day be Isiah, Dumars and the Microwave? Right, I mean, that would be a pretty good backcourt.

I wish Ted had included “potentially” in this comment because it’s not a good three-guard rotation. And yeah, Isiah, Dumars and Vinny Johnson did make a good backcourt. But let’s be real: none of the Wizards “trio” have proven to be “good” NBA players. Wall has been average. His “glory stats” (per game points, rebounds and assists) look pretty good, but his shooting has been atrocious and his overall efficiency (including turnovers) has been awful.

Crawford is bad — one of the least efficient high usage players in league history. Since the NBA implemented the 3pt shot in 1979-80 there have been 930 player seasons in which a player received at least 1500 total minutes and had a usage rate of 25% or higher. Crawford ranks 907th in  individual offensive rating (individual points produced per 100 individual possessions).

During that span, there have been 851 player seasons with an individual offensive rating at least 3 points per 100 possessions better than Crawford. If we limit the look to players in their first two seasons, there have been 121 player seasons fitting the criteria above. Crawford ranks 108th on that list. Virtually anyone in the NBA could score as many points as Crawford did last season if he shot as frequently.

Beal, of course, has played zero minutes in the NBA. I predict that he’ll be a good player. In my draft analysis, Beal’s score in YODA was similar to freshman SGs like Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Vince Carter. So there’s hope.

Leonsis: That’s why I looked at are we better at using our money in space to get Okafor and Ariza, then hoping and praying that we can get a free agent that believes and wants to come here. Then you hope while making a free-agent deal, those deals are pretty high-priced. Two years.

I understand what Ted’s hoping to do by using the cap space on Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, but I think it’s a bad strategy. As I wrote a few days ago, they would have been smarter to buy out Rashard Lewis and amnesty Blatche, and then used the resulting cap space to outbid Dallas for Elton Brand (amnestied by Philly and picked up by the Mavericks for $2.1 million), outbid San Antonio for Danny Green (hugely underrated and re-signed for $4 million per season — an absolute bargain), and outbid Atlanta for Lou Williams (an efficient, 3rd guard type who signed for the mid-level exception). And they still could have had $8-9 million in cap room next offseason.

What the Wizards have done is buy a couple years of mediocrity at best. And at the end of those two years, they won’t be in position to pursue free agents because they’ll need to re-sign John Wall (they hope) and they’ll have other contracts coming due for extensions and renewals. This was their shot to use their cap space to add young players who fit their rebuild — they spent it on Okafor and Ariza.

Leonsis: We’ve made big investments in the analytic side and the technology side. … Besides our in-house guys, we have one cool guy: Joe Sill. Joe presents on occasion at that stats thing at MIT. Double-math PHd. He’s almost like a technical trader on Wall St. I can pick a company you should invest in. He’ll never meet the CEO, but he knows from the numbers which ones to pick. …

I do think there is a big, big role in informing some decisions. Also, that the little things have value. Our defensive rebounding — and the defensive rebounding stats of our guards — improved dramatically when Nene came and JaVale left. So, getting guards who can rebound becomes important. If your forwards are pushing their men out, that’s not a stat. That’s something you follow. That means the guards have the opportunity to get the rebounds and initiate their own break. Teaching rebounding becomes important. So Beal is a real good rebounder as a guard who fits really good with what we’re trying to do.

I’m a stat guy, so I like that they’re investing in analytics. Joe Sill is a “regularized adjusted plus minus” guy, and definitely a smart guy. The “promise” of RAPM is that it’s results are more accurate than straight (APM) because of something called “ridge regression,” which reduces standard errors. RAPM and APM are numbers I pay attention to, but I’m dubious about their utility because I’m not persuaded that the proponents fully understand all the factors that go into the “adjustment.”

Leonsis:

We’re also one of the few teams have installed this super heat-seeking missile cameras. Have you heard about this? We have these HD cameras. Another Stanford kid does it for us. This thing creates real-time heat maps. Literally you can get down to the pixels on the floor. Where are the shots being taken, where are the shots being made, where are the picks being made. It does interesting things like, how many dribbles on a fast break does your guard hold the ball before he dishes off, and was their a good shot made versus other guards in the league.

How does this work in practice: You tell a guard you were negating your speed by dribbling two more times. And then, when you dribble only three times and then you dish, we convert 70 percent of the time. All of this data then gets used in practice, like, in coaching sessions.”

I’ll tell you a lesson I learned 10 years ago with Ron Wilson and Adam Oates. I’ll never forget this. Adam Oates was the [quarterback] of our power play. Adam didn’t even know he was doing it, but he would put his skate up against the wall and bring that skate down and then get that pass. When the [power play] became not productive, he stopped doing that, and he was collecting the puck just a little further away, seven or eight inches away, from the half board.

The entire geometry of the ice changed, six or seven inches. Rob Wilson showed him, I remember, and said, ‘Just do that: Put your skate against the board.’ The power play came back. So that to me, as an owner, was the first indication that a little thing reviewed, fixed, coached can have unbelievable, big positive impact.

So we wanted to use as many tools as we can to try to give us advantage, and bringing in some of these coaches from winning programs. Bringing in these analytics, bringing in high IQ, good people it’s all a part of trying to change a losing culture to a winning culture.

This sounds really cool, and I’d love to analyze the take. The information is ultimately going to be as good as the analyst, and hopefully the team has good ones in place.

Interesting exchange between Wise and Ted about Blatche:

Q. I was reading quotes from two years ago about how much you thought signing Blatche to an extension was a great idea. Two years later, does this qualify as your biggest disappointment of owning the Wizards’ thus far?

A. Yes — we made a mistake — although the NBA has had close to $250 million of amnestied players to date — sometimes you get a chance to take a mulligan under the new rules and that is what we did.

Q. Who bears the most responsibility for the fact that he didn’t work out in Washington?

A. We are all in it together — so we are all to blame. Buck has to stop with me though as owner. I appreciate Andray’s apology to the fans and I hope he is able to turn around his career.

Q. Given your belief in redemption, was it particularly hard to cut him loose?

A. No, it wasnt. It was in best interest of franchise.

Ultimately, the person who bears responsibility for Blatche’s failure in Washington is Blatche himself. Had he worked hard, played hard and had a better attitude, he’d still be with the team and he’d be productive. He had ability. He just never put in what was necessary to come close to maximizing it.

On the (to me) difficult to understand decision to give Ernie Grunfeld another two years running the Wizards:

Leonsis: With Ernie what I found was, could we be on the same wavelength? Would he build team with eight or nine first-round picks? Could he make trades? I thought trading Gilbert was impossible. I thought trading Rashard was impossible.

It’s hard to even unpack what I think are faulty assumptions by Ted. Any player can be traded if you’re willing to pay the other guy’s price. They could trade Arenas because they took back a contract almost as bad. They were able to trade Lewis because they could solve all of New Orleans long-term salary cap issues with a single trade. And somehow, Grunfeld also gave up a 2nd round pick to make it happen. And New Orleans then used the cap room they acquired from the Wizards to trade for a 23-year old PF who happens to be supremely underrated.

I like several of the guys working for Grunfeld, but I have little belief that Grunfeld will build a title-contending team in Washington. The moves they made this offseason seem designed to get the Wizards in contention for the playoffs for the next two years. That is, contention for the 7th or 8th seed, not for a division title and a top 3-4 seed. To me, it’s a disappointment to see the team go for a sacrifice bunt when they had an opportunity to swing for the fences.

That said, I hope I’m wrong.

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