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Washington Wizards seek to break the industry mould, find wins with new leadership structure

Monumental Sports and Entertainment owner and founder Ted Leonsis (Credit: Getty Images)

A personnel chief for an NFL team, a European soccer team doctor, and a college basketball coach walk into the front office of a NBA team….

It sounds like the beginning of a joke. But it’s real, and quite serious. And in turn, Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards and chairman of parent organization Monumental Sports & Entertainment, may have carried out the biggest front office makeover at a US pro sports team since the book Moneyball transformed Major League Baseball in 2002.

Eschewing traditional team management structures, Leonsis has installed a three-pronged leadership team in which longtime Wizards executive and new general manager Tommy Sheppard is sharing leadership power and responsibility with Sashi Brown, designated chief planning and operations officer for Monumental Basketball, and Daniel Medina, named chief of athlete care and performance for Monumental Basketball. 

The trio will be joined by former Georgetown University men’s basketball coach John Thompson III, who will lead a new athlete development and engagement department for Monumental Basketball, one focused on “player potential” and delving in part into off-court areas such as financial literacy and post-basketball career opportunities.

A longtime sports attorney, Brown was previously executive vice-president of football operations for the Cleveland Browns. And Medina spent a decade with European soccer power FC Barcelona in medical roles before a two-year stint as vice-president of athlete care for Wizards rival the Philadelphia 76ers. Thompson is a fixture in Washington-area sports, having spent 13 years as head coach at Georgetown, the school where his father John Thompson Jr. built a Hall of Fame career.

Leonsis did not come to the new structure quickly or easily, and wasn’t necessarily looking to reinvent his basketball team. He stayed with beleaguered Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld far longer than angry fans wanted after a lengthy series of losing seasons and early playoff flameouts, finally dismissing him in April after 16 mostly lackluster seasons. And Leonsis himself freely admits that had there been more winning, there wouldn’t have been any radical change in approach.

But a perfect storm of misfortune that dropped the Wizards to a 32-50 record in 2018-19, the club’s worst record in six years, prompted Leonsis to surprise everyone by bringing in senior personnel carrying little or no prior NBA experience. 

Collaboratively, the trio of new hires will also be charged with creating a series of cross-platform approaches for the entire portfolio of basketball teams under the Monumental Sports umbrella: the WNBA Washington Mystics, the G-League Capital City Go-Go, and Wizards District Gaming of the NBA 2K League, as well as the Wizards themselves.

The structure in some ways resembles the broad responsibility held by Stan Kasten in the 1990s and early 2000s, when he simultaneously ran the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Hawks, and Atlanta Thrashers. But Leonsis is focusing on a much less singular and more collective approach.

“To expect one person to be master of all of that, I think that day is past,” Leonsis told SportBusiness. “There are very few unicorns out there. It’s not just Bill Belichick [with the NFL’s New England Patriots]. It’s [owner] Robert Kraft, [quarterback] Tom Brady, and the culture. It’s too big to just have a single decision maker.”

After dismissing Grunfeld, Leonsis spent nearly three months talking to more than 50 people in not only the NBA, but other US sports leagues including the NFL and various leagues in European soccer. Sheppard’s elevation from assistant general manager following that research period on the surface looked like a standard internal promotion. But in reality, it came with the arrival other department heads with equal voices and shared power.

“As I went deep into the process, I started to feel maybe the traditional way just reinforces what has been happening,” Leonsis says. “What was the risk of a tried-and-true method where you build a senior [management] team and allow a general manager to just focus on basketball?

“In sports, teams have become the size and scale of Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Multi-billion dollar enterprises, hundreds of employees. Yet the decision making, certainly at the Wizards and most other NBA teams, was anti to how big companies were making decisions. For the most part, the decisions were made by the top person and he or she would say, ‘I got it.’ ” Leonsis says.

Leonsis conceded frustration over the local Washington-area media’s call for a quickly named successor to Grunfeld. But he insisted on a methodical process before announcing the changes in late July.

“People were calling the process ‘driftless,’ ‘meandering,’ ” Leonsis says. “When you do succession planning or turnaround in a big company, it can take 12 to 24 months. Imagine a bank president goes to another bank president and asks to interview a vice-president for a job. You meet with them for two hours and have enough kismet to invite them back. And then a second interview goes for a couple of hours and you offer them a job. That would never, ever happen in business.”

The research led Leonsis in part to conclude that the scope of responsibilities for running an NBA team fundamentally needed to be split into multiple people.

“I didn’t want to go the traditional route and find the one person and say, ‘Here, replicate what we’ve been doing and you do what the last person was doing.’ It was better to break the responsibilities up a different way and add to the talent pool,” he says.

Leonsis also concluded that he ought be more personally involved in the Wizards. Because he acquired the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals first in 1999, more than a decade before he gained control of the Wizards, and that team has enjoyed far more competitive success, Leonsis’ own image has been more tied to hockey than basketball.

“Every agent and player that I’ve talked to say the more they see [team officials], the more connected they feel to what our vision and ultimate plan is,” Leonsis says.

Wins have been hard to come by for the Washington Wizards, standing pre-game at a game last season at Capital One Arena, as the team in 2018-19 sank to its worst record in six years.

Brown’s role as chief planning and operations officer for all the Monumental basketball teams is easily the least traditional compared to typical team management structures. His areas of responsibility related to the basketball operations include technology, finance, communications, security, research, and player engagement. Brown described his role as bringing “together all of our resources…to innovate and find synergies and opportunities across all of our basketball properties.”

That may sound like a bunch of empty management talk. But it speaks directly Leonsis’ desire for new voices and ideas, which in turn is the whole point of the team’s dramatic leadership makeover. Leonsis says he was particularly attracted to Brown’s technology experience and strategic thinking. But as Georgetown University graduate, Leonsis joked that he “won’t hold [Brown’s] Harvard Law School degree against him.”

“What do great organizations do?,” Leonsis asks. “It’s pretty simple. You get the most diverse, smartest people you can find and unleash their intellect….We can deeply fortify ourselves, and have deep basketball knowledge. Let’s celebrate diversity and it’s not about skin color and gender. It’s about different experiences and different ideas. That’s what I was craving.

“The league’s teams now are being filled with executives leading basketball operations that came from business. Why can’t we do both? We can’t we make big investments and go deep in basketball and bring in people who….are really, really smart and can add value?,” Leonsis says.

The appointment of Medina and heightened focus on player health, meanwhile, reflects a sports industry-wide trend in which reducing man games lost to injury is one of the most pressing concerns. Medina’s efforts will encompass all of Monumental’s basketball teams, including the esports franchise, with a particular focus on nutrition, mental health, and non-competition lifestyles.

“It’s all about communication,” Medina says. “How the coach listens to everyone. This has been proven in soccer….It’s all about trust and how players feel about you look after them.”

Sheppard, with the Wizards for 17 years and the NBA overall for a quarter century, stands to have his working life altered the most given his role most resembles one from the prior structure. But he says he welcomes the additional executive input.

“This minimizes headaches,” Sheppard says. “It lets everyone work in real time and all report together and be as distraction free as possible.”

The Wizards’ new leadership structure also is designed to have a heightened emphasis on player analytics. This is hardly a new concept across the entire US sports industry, as pro teams in all the major sports have rapidly embraced the heavy use of analytics in managing and developing player personnel, particularly since the release of Moneyball. But the Wizards had not been properly optimized in this area, despite Leonsis’ own embrace of analytics dating back to the earliest days of his business career.

“We’re trying to be smarter to our approach to practice, nutritional levels, how players lift weights, how they move on the floor, hydration levels,” Sheppard says. “If you do all the things to be successful, success will show up. We have sustainable data, see where success and gaffes are, and adjust. More information, better decisions.”

The Monumental leadership changes also arrive amid a dramatically altered NBA that earlier this summer saw free agent movement involving marquee stars such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George, among many others.

“If you were thinking it was business as usual [following the free agency market], you would have been left far behind,” Leonsis says. “The way I was managing [before] was by outcomes. Now we’re going to be a lot more focused on collaboration and the process.

“The NBA was a radical change this summer. While it scares a lot of people, there’s some goodness that came out of it. The talent is more evenly spread. This notion we were all chasing was that we need we three max [salary] players….Now you look around the league, and it’s like it used to be. Now it’s two all-stars [per team] and depth. Depth is becoming so much more important in this league just because of the injuries,” Leonsis says.

Judging success for the Wizards under the new structure will be an unforgiving test. Not only does the team have its own often-lackluster history to contend with, but its sister Monumental franchise, the Capitals, won the 2018 Stanley Cup and remains a perennial NHL contender. 

But Leonsis believes the shared resources across his NBA, WNBA, G-League, and NBA 2K League teams will soon pay sizable dividends.

“We’re not done yet,” Leonsis says. “We’re going to go much deeper in basketball than we were and much deeper in shared services and treat the developmental league and Mystics and NBA 2K like they’re professional, growing franchises. If we can do both of those well, now we’re investing horizontally and vertically. It will be a one-of-a-kind, valuable set of assets and it will help at each team’s level.

“We broke the mold a little bit. Don’t know if it’s the final right answer. I’m sure there will be tweaks along the way,” he says.

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