The Washington Wizards are certainly taking their time as they search for their next head coach. The patience they have shown has been unlike what we have seen from the other teams that needed new head coaches this offseason. At one point, seven teams were looking around. Since then, six have made hires. The Wizards are the only ones left.
But there has been action! Earlier in July, Adrian Wojnarowski named four assistant coaches emerging as strong candidates for the Wizards job. Since then, Jamahl Mosely was hired to be the head coach of the Orlando Magic. Unsurprisingly, the remaining three — Wes Unseld Jr, Darvin Ham, and Charles Lee — have emerged as finalists for the job, with Unseld Jr reportedly being the front runner, per Shams Charania.
Aside from being top assistants, there is an interesting commonality between these candidates and their current teams. Unseld Jr has been with the Denver Nuggets since 2015. Darvin Ham and Charles Lee both joined the Milwaukee Bucks staff in 2018. Before that, Ham and Lee both served as assistants with the Atlanta Hawks (Ham: 2013-18; Lee: 2014-18).
Since 2015, the Nuggets have ascended from a sub-.500 team to a true contender in the Western Conference. Since 2018, the Bucks have gone from the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff race (seven seed in 2018 playoffs) to winning the Eastern Conference this season and challenging the Phoenix Suns for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
How both of those teams rose from the doldrums to the top are similar. In 2013, the Bucks drafted a raw, gangly teenager brimming with potential named Giannis Antetokounmpo. In 2014, the Nuggets drafted a Serbian center named Nikola Jokic. Since then, both teams have built contenders around their homegrown superstars. Antetokounmpo is now a two-time MVP and one of the most dominant forces in the NBA. Jokic was just named the 2021 MVP.
To complement these superstars, each team added key pieces through the draft. The Nuggets took Michael Porter Jr and Jamal Murray, both of whom are becoming legit young stars in the NBA. 2018 first-round pick Donte DiVincenzo has become a solid role player in Milwaukee and is sorely missed in the Finals right now. And when both teams needed some additional help to get over the hump, the Bucks and Nuggets got busy in the trade market, adding Jrue Holiday and Aaron Gordon, respectively.
Even before Lee and Ham arrived in Milwaukee, they had experience as assistants with a similarly built Hawks team that, at its height, won 60 games on its way to being the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
Team construction is more the responsibility of the GM than the assistant coach or even the head coach, and both of the homegrown stars mentioned above arrived before these assistants did. However, all of the finalists for the Wizards job have at least been exposed to contender-building done the right way. They have been in situations and systems that the Wizards could and should try to replicate.
The Wizards have the homegrown star: Bradley Beal. They have the promising draft pick sidekicks: Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija. They have made trades to add big contributors: Russell Westbrook and Daniel Gafford. The Wizards are far, far away from where the Bucks and Nuggets are. However, you can see a path forward for the Wizards that looks very similar to what Unseld, Ham, and Lee have traveled on with former teams.
While they did not build the contenders, as assistants, these candidates have experience maximizing the pieces around a superstar, whether that be Jokic or Antetokounmpo. They have experience creating a team that does not simply rely on the superstar but makes his life easier by maximizing the pieces around him. For the Wizards, who are trying to capitalize on this moment in time when they have one of the NBA’s best scorers, that is exactly the type of coach they need to hire to show Beal that they are committed to making his life easier, all in the name of winning.
Now, the pressure is on Tommy Sheppard to make the moves that allow his new head coach, whoever he may be, to reach true success. As he said, this is not a “run it back” team.