What the Washington Wizards can learn from the Capitals and Nationals

Washington Wizards John Wall (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images)
Washington Wizards John Wall (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images) /

The Washington Capitals are perennial contenders in the NHL. The Washington Nationals are back in the MLB Playoffs. What about the Washington Wizards?

The Washington Capitals, owned by Ted Leonsis, won the Stanley Cup in 2018. The Washington Nationals are back in the playoffs for the fifth time in eight years. The Washington Wizards are far from that type of postseason success.  After a disappointing season, it doesn’t look like it will get better anytime soon. What can the Wizards learn from their DC counterparts?

In 2012 John Wall began to make a name for himself, while Bryce Harper made his long-awaited debut for the Nationals. Alex Ovechkin had already established himself as a superstar for the Capitals. The future looked bright for DC sports. Fast forward to October 2019 and Wall is out with yet another injury, Bryce Harper left in free agency for the rival Philadelphia Phillies, and Alex Ovechkin finally brought a Stanley Cup to the nation’s capital.

Despite Harper leaving, the Nationals made a flurry of offseason moves that have led the team back to the postseason. Tonight, they will take on the Los Angeles Dodgers and the winner will go on to the NLCS. The Capitals remain favorites to win the Stanley Cup again and are currently unbeaten in their young season. The Wizards are still figuring things out.

From 2014-2018 the Wizards made the playoffs four times and were one game away from going to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017. Now the face of the franchise is out for the season with an Achilles injury, the team is loaded with questionable contracts and spare parts, and besides Bradley Beal, the rest of the team is unproven.

The Draft Matters

Where the Capitals and Nationals went right, the Wizards failed to follow suit. For example, the Capitals have prevailed thanks to most of their top draft picks panning out. It also helps that they were able to land one of the best goal scorers of all-time in Alex Ovechkin. This allowed Capitals former GM George McPhee to successfully build the team around his superstar. More than not McPhee’s draft picks ended up being instrumental in the Capitals’ recent progress. Draft picks such as Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, John Carlson, Braden Holtby, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, all stepped up when needed and brought home a title to DC. Finding talent in the draft and developing it correctly has been huge.

More often than not the Wizards draft picks under former GM Ernie Grunfeld were busts. Players such as Jan Vesely, Oleksiy Pecherov, and Chris Singleton all significantly set the team back. John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter have all panned out as good to great NBA players, but that was about it.  Sadly, Porter isn’t even with the team anymore. So did he really work out? More about that later.

Free Agency Finds

The Nationals have also benefited from homegrown talent, as they have drafted players such as Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, and Victor Robles. But GM Mike Rizzo was able to make his team elite by having success in free agency. He signed notable players such as Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Kurt Suzuki, Gerado Parra, and Anibal Sanchez. These additions to the roster have eased the sting of losing Bryce Harper. They were key components of the team’s ability to make the playoffs again. The team came together winning their first-ever playoff series in a thriller on Tuesday night. And yes, the Wild Card game counts as a playoff series.

The Wizards, on the other hand, have recently bombed with their free agent signings. Most notable was the Ian Mahinmi signing for four years, $64 million. Mahinmi is being paid starters money to sit on the bench. That has hampered the team from signing other players. Grunfeld thought he found an answer last season, signing Dwight Howard to a cheap deal, but he only played nine games before undergoing season-ending surgery. Grunfeld was fired this past off-season and his replacement, Tommy Shepard already shipped out Howard.

Trade Smarter

The Capitals and Nationals have also found the road to success with trades. Since taking over in 2015, Capitals GM Brian MacClellan has always been busy at the trade deadline. He most notably traded for fan favorites T.J. Oshie and Devante Smith Pelly (DSP). While DSP is no longer on the team, he will always be remembered for his grit and production in the 2018 playoffs. MacClellan also utilized the trade deadline in recent years to strengthen the Capitals’ defense. He traded for Michael Kempny who is now on the Capitals top defensive line.

The Nationals strengthened their bullpen with a trade that landed them Daniel Hudson. Hudson after, ten seasons and two Tommy-John surgeries, has re-found his groove and closed out a crucial Wild Card game last Tuesday night.

More than not most of the trades made by those teams have been rewarding. However the same cannot be said for the Wizards. In the John Wall era, Grunfeld made multiple head-scratching trades. One of the most notable was when he traded talented forward Kelly Oubre Jr. away for Trevor Ariza this past season. Ariza was an established veteran who had played for the team in the past. This was a win-now move, but the problem was that the Wizards were already at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They weren’t going to win now!

Washington gave up on homegrown talent and had the chance to flip Ariza but didn’t. Instead, he walked this summer for nothing. Grunfeld also traded away Otto Porter for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker. This was a move to get the team under the luxury tax and it signaled the end of the Wizards “big three.” But in the end, Washington didn’t re-sign either player and they both walked for nothing. Grunfeld kept making trades to keep a dwindling window open, using them as band-aids to cover up the holes. Unfortunately, this has set the franchise back even further, and Sheppard has been left to clean it up.

A Change is Gonna Come

Now that the Wizards have a new GM, he has overhauled the front office and has set himself on vastly improving not only the talent but the attitude within the organization. Rod Thorn was recently hired to be an advisor to Sheppard in his new role. Thorn is most known for drafting Michael Jordan to the Chicago Bulls but has a long, Hall of Fame resume.

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Immediately, Sheppard has made some smart off-season moves such as re-signing Thomas Bryant and drafting Rui Hachimura. He will need to continue the trend of replenishing draft picks and avoiding costly contract to keep this team afloat. The Capitals and Nationals have found a winning formula by adhering to a long-term plan and not veering off course. Now Sheppard will have to do the same for the Wizards.