Ted Leonsis admits the Wizards need front office change

Ted Leonsis admits the Wizards need front office change

Has someone checked on Ted Leonsis lately? Is he okay? Seriously, if there’s anyone available who can pull up to the gates of his Potomac mansion, ring the intercom and ask if all is well, that may put us all at ease. Just to make sure it was not a billion-dollar body double who sent that statement Wednesday — that it was in fact the real Ted Leonsis.

Because that statement needed only three paragraphs to unleash some of the strongest words ever written by a Monumental Sports & Entertainment staffer. I would dare anyone across Washington Wizards fandom to read those short, pointed and overly dramatic italicized sentences out loud and not say: whoa. Although the statement didn’t come with sound effects or strobe lights, it landed in inboxes at exactly 7 p.m. with a boom and a feeling of shock that something so drastic, so — what’s the right word? — so very un-Ted-like had just happened.

This wasn’t another Ted Talk. This was action.

Wizards fire president and general manager Tommy Sheppard

On Wednesday, Leonsis, the Monumental Sports & Entertainment founder and CEO, fired Tommy Sheppard. Days such as this don’t usually happen with the Wizards. Sheppard, who signed a contract extension less than two years ago, was the Wizards’ president and general manager and had been with the team since 2003. Even internal staffers, I’m told, were shocked by the news. They know as well as anyone that change doesn’t happen here.

The only evolution in D.C. comes from the constantly remixed jerseys meant to milk a few more bucks from the last remaining die-hards. But there’s no change where it really matters. One season without 50 wins or an appearance in the conference finals builds atop the next. Mediocre stretches spiral into inferior eras. Ernie Grunfeld begets Tommy Sheppard. One blown draft pick morphs into another. And 25 years later, all that remains is a 1978 championship banner that hangs over a dead arena.

Suddenly, however, Leonsis feels urgency for something fresh. All it took was his team missing the playoffs for two seasons, the “failure” of not even making the top 10 among 15 teams in the Eastern Conference. Leonsis’s statement described this as a “very disappointing” feeling for the organization and fans. Then came the sentence that changed everything:

“A search for new leadership will begin immediately for an executive from outside the organization.”

Leonsis ended the statement by wishing Sheppard good luck. But a more fitting salute would have been: “New Ted, who dis?”

Yes, he waited nine days after Sheppard represented the organization during the end-of-season media availability. But in Leonsis Time, a week and a half felt like 28 seconds. For the Wizards, this almost looks like something that could be called intentional.

This season, Monica Dixon, the company’s chief administrative officer, worked out of the team’s practice facility at Entertainment and Sports Arena in Ward 8, multiple people told me. The idea of Leonsis sending his right-hand woman inside the Wizards’ workplace should feel significant.

Leonsis has a history of simply standing by and watching the franchise falter. He admitted his own need to “take responsibility” after he fired Grunfeld in 2019. Still, three years later, Leonsis doesn’t cut the image of a hands-on owner. He has been busy trying to buy the Nationals and possibly Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. Having Dixon work at ESA on a consistent basis, observe the Wizards’ situation, recognize what is and what is not working and report back should have given Leonsis a better understanding of his basketball team. Wise move by the boss.

And this understanding led Leonsis to do something he has never done as the Wizards’ owner: finally slap a period at the end of the Grunfeld era.

The line about finding an executive outside the organization sent a signal for fans to buckle up and brace for real change. It also should have communicated a stronger message internally: If you are currently employed by the Wizards, you need not apply. If there’s any trace of the past 20 years of residue on your fingerprints, like orange Cheetos stains you can’t wipe off, this job is not for you.

Thank you for your service, all you Washington lifers and trusty Grunfeld lieutenants — or anyone who was in the room and signed off on drafting Johnny Davis with the 10th overall pick. But please, leave.

The Wizards would rather have new blood, and I can’t imagine Leonsis made this decision without having someone already in mind, right? Right?! Even so, this scary unknown should feel good.

Somewhere out there is Washington’s next president of basketball operations, who will come from a different NBA organization. Hopefully, this person brings along a vision, some excitement, maybe even a plan that can work around the are-you-kidding-me?!?! contract given to Bradley Beal. Sheppard and Leonsis did the organization no favors by giving Beal that no-trade clause in his five-year, $251 million deal. The next executive has to know how to work wonders around this nightmare or learn to coax more money out of Leonsis to build a roster around Beal.

Bradley Beal can’t see the future, but he expects to be with the Wizards

And on the topic of executives and money, it’s time again to daydream about Tim Connelly or even Bob Myers, the foreman behind the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty. Though Connelly’s name popped up immediately following the breaking news, the problem with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations is he already turned down the Wizards in 2019. Less than a year ago, he signed a five-year contract worth $40 million with Minnesota.

Though Myers is on an expiring deal, when he becomes available he will be worth more than Connelly’s number.

And Masai Ujiri? Let’s not even fool ourselves with that fantasy again. Leonsis said he didn’t interview Ujiri during the team’s 2019 search, and Ujiri, as the Toronto Raptors’ president and vice chairman, has the title and all the power he wants north of the border. There’s a reason in 2019 he proclaimed: “I’m here to stay.”

So maybe there won’t be a splashy name, but that shouldn’t diminish the enthusiasm of something new and garden-fresh coming to D.C.

With his Wednesday announcement, Leonsis won the day on Twitter. And for a billionaire owner who actually cares about the comments section, that’s big for him. Now New Ted has to be bold and spend the money.

Not on a long, drawn-out search process, as he did last time. No more world tours and interviews with Barack Obama, Billy Beane and a laundry list of other names. Last time, Leonsis tried something he felt was visionary in creating “Monumental Basketball.” He wanted to get it right, but it turned out to be completely unnecessary when, after all of that, Leonsis ended up with Sheppard — a symbol of the past who couldn’t last four full years on his own.

Leonsis just needs to spend the appropriate amount of money to land a smart and innovative basketball executive. It seems he finally has the motivation for a different voice. Let’s just hope this New Ted has replaced the old version, the long-suffering owner averse to change.

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