What the Wizards GM learned about his own team from exhaustive coaching search


The book was out on the Washington Wizards already, prior to every game they played in the 2020-21 season, and they were the only ones who didn't know it.

Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard conducted 18 formal interviews and another eight over the phone, and in speaking with those 26 separate candidates — all interviewing for the Wizards head coaching vacancy — a pattern began to emerge. For the first time since Scott Brooks was hired in 2016, Sheppard was seeing a window into the outside world, what objective observers viewed as his team's biggest weaknesses. What he saw hurt him.

"Certainly I think everybody points to the defensive end, because that's just a lot more effort, a lot more repetitions, a lot more preparation," Sheppard told The Sports Junkies this week. "Those are controllables. It wasn't a talent issue; it's just getting people to get 'em in the right spots and get 'em comfortable. So I think everybody felt like, defensively, there can be immediate impact."

"Offensively, everybody really spoke to our efficiency equation and our lack of efficiency," he said. "We were number one in the league in pace, which is a great thing, but if our shot quality is bad and we don't necessarily get quality three-point shots up a game, you know, you're starting a game off down six-zip, sometimes nine-zip.

"And that was something I think that a lot more... when you're talking to assistant coaches particularly, who are charged during the season of really implementing an offensive package, a defensive package for their own teams. You know, the NBA has kind of gone the way of the NFL with coordinators. These guys were real familiar with how to, when we played them, 'Hey, this is how we're gonna beat the Wizards. This is what we need to do.'"

"And the theme was pretty common," he continued, "just make sure you get them early looks in the shot clock, they'll take bad shots; they don't get back to transition D; and if we keep at it, they are a team that will not necessarily front-run, but if you stay in it, towards the end of the game you should be in good shape."

"And that hurt me personally, because you think, well, we should be better than that, and that's kind of where we are moving forward," Sheppard said. "That's why we landed at it's time to hire a new staff and get a different outlook for the Wizards."

Confirming that the entire previous coaching staff under Brooks was let go, Sheppard added, "Yes, right now that is the case. There will be some people that may have some opportunities to interview with the new coach, but I think starting out with a clean slate is a good opportunity for everybody."

"We did 18 formal interviews. I did another eight over the phone just one-on-one with people that weren't really excited about getting their name out there, but definitely were interested in the job," Sheppard said detailing the process that led them to Wes Unseld Jr. "We had a ton of interest, and we really went about it pretty thoroughly, pretty thoughtfully, and where we arrived was at a fantastic young head coach that's just been putting in the time, doing everything he could possibly do."

"Not a self-promoter, but somebody that was ready for this job," he said. "You know, I can relate to that. I waited a long time to get the job as the GM. I think you just need the opportunity. What Wes has done in his career, not just when he was in Denver, but when he was in Orlando before that, Golden State before that, and certainly this time in Washington, he's been preparing for that moment his whole career."

Coming to Washington is a homecoming of Unseld Jr., a Towson, Md.-native who began his career with the Wizards as a scout in 1997, a job he held until 2005, when he was promoted to an assistant coach, a role he'd serve in under Eddie Jordan, Ed Tapscott and Flip Saunders before leaving for Golden State in 2011.

Sheppard, who's been with the Wizards since 2003, admits he had some catching up to do with Unseld because, despite working together previously for eight years, neither had gone out of their way to keep in touch. "We're pretty selfish people in the NBA," Sheppard said. "We're more concerned abo