The Washington Wizards have two players with All-NBA accolades. They have the second-leading scorer in the league. Yet this team is far, far, removed from the franchise’s glory days.
However, recent news may bring back memories of better times for those that remember what is starting to feel like ancient history. The Wizards haven’t won 50 games in a season or advanced to the conference finals since 1979. During those times, during the height of basketball in the nation’s capital, future Hall of Famer Wes Unseld Sr. was leading the Wizards and averaging double-doubles in D.C. That was over 40 years ago, but Unseld’s name is still synonymous with Washington basketball. And the Unseld legacy is bound to live on for at least four more years. Unseld’s son, Wes Unseld Jr., is the new head coach of the Washington Wizards. He has a chance to take this team to heights they have not reached since his late father dominated the hardwood.
Despite playoff births in two of the last four seasons, there has not been much to cheer about in Washington recently. During their 2018 playoff appearance, the Wizards were barely a match for the top-seeded Toronto Raptors. They were quickly eliminated in six games. The Wizards suffered a similar fate this season against the Philadelphia 76ers. Only it happened in five games. While individual accolades have piled up for Bradley Beal and (recently) Russell Westbrook, the team has had a hard time finding success.
However, even after four rocky seasons and an unclear path forward, the new head coach inspires hope, even if it is only superficial. The name alone — Unseld — harkens back to the franchise’s best times while also now marking a new era in Wizards basketball.
There is far more to this than just nostalgia, though. Much more. Unseld may seem like the obvious and easy choice. He’s the famous son whose presence on the sideline immediately stirs up fuzzy feelings of a Bullets championship and past playoff runs. But that is not why he got the job.
Wes Unseld Jr.’s ties to the Washington Wizards made him the obvious choice. He is also the right choice.
Unseld is also the right hire. He’s well regarded in league circles, and his name was frequently on the shortlists of potential candidates for head coaching vacancies, especially when teams were considering assistants. Most recently, he was a finalist for the Orlando Magic’s head coaching job. And it was not because of his name. Unseld has been credited with orchestrating the strong defense in Denver over the past few seasons. He also gets props for masterminding the Wizards’ offensive systems during the mid-2000s, which ranked in the top ten in 2005 (10th), 2006 (6th), and 2007 (4th). His resume and experience speak for themselves.
You can’t accuse the Wizards of not doing their homework on this one. The search took a full month, unlike the Wizards’ last coaching search in which they took just one week to hire Scott Brooks. During that month-long search, the Wizards interviewed at least nine potential head coaches. Whether Unseld started as the frontrunner or emerged as one during the process does not matter. Either way, he stood out among a crowded room of candidates. General manager Tommy Sheppard’s glowing remarks in the team’s official announcement sum up their feelings, and Unseld’s qualifications, quite well…
"“Wes is one of the most highly-regarded assistant coaches in the NBA and clearly separated himself from the large and diverse group of candidates we considered. His strong record as an in-game tactician along with his attention to detail on both sides of the ball, combined with his reputation for player development and outstanding character during his 20+ years of coaching left no doubt that he was the best choice to guide our team to the next level.”"
As an assistant, Unseld has been strategically successful on both sides of the ball. He’s paid his dues; 16 years as an assistant coach and eight years as a scout. And luckily, he is now the head coach of the Washington Wizards. To say his name had nothing to do with it would be a bit foolish. But to say he got the job because of it would be even more so.