But Winger and Dawkins prefer “restart,” “reshuffle” or “reshape” because “rebuild” implies a level of non-competitiveness that doesn’t reflect what the Wizards are trying to do. They want to compete hard; both executives said Tuesday that all 19 players on the roster, all of whom Dawkins said will be available and healthy for training camp, have a fire that makes for a competitive locker room. But winning consistently? Well, one thing at a time.
“We have a vision for the team. It is ambitious, and it is a very heavy lift,” Winger said, occasionally referencing a single-spaced, small-print list of typed notes, a reflection of his methodical manner. “We want to build an organization that develops and can support a sustainably great team. We don’t want to be a flash in the pan. We don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. We want to build the right way. We’ve studied all the teams in the league, historically and currently, that have done it what we would characterize as the right way. And it is a very heavy lift. Hard decisions, a lot of patience, an intense focus on player development, an intense focus on research, and that’s what we are going to do.”
It’s hardly glamorous, but Winger isn’t building an organization to dazzle. He’s building an organization he hopes eventually reaches what he called an “era of sustainable contention,” a slogan that both belongs on a political campaign bumper sticker and kind of fits.
It means player development is a central focus of these first few years, and Dawkins said a group of around 10 people is interacting with every player on the roster to monitor his mental health, physical state, performance goals and medical needs, not to mention, you know, the basketball stuff. To that end, the Wizards announced a few new coaching hires Monday.
Brian Keefe and David Vanterpool join as assistant coaches after serving in the same positions with the Brooklyn Nets last season. The gig is a homecoming for Vanterpool, who grew up in the area, rose to prominence as a star player at Blair High, passed on Maryland to attend St. Bonaventure and played 22 games with the Wizards in 2001 as a 27-year-old rookie after an overseas career. (Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. happened to be a scout with the organization at the time.)
Vanterpool and Keefe worked for the Oklahoma City Thunder, with whom Winger and Dawkins cut their teeth as executives. Vanterpool also served as an assistant in Portland and as the associate head coach in Minnesota. Keefe was also an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks.
Unseld also added Sammy Gelfand as an assistant coach focused on analytics. Gelfand came from New Orleans, before which he spent four years with the Detroit Pistons and seven years with the Golden State Warriors, including the 2015, 2017 and 2018 championship seasons.
Cody Toppert, a former college basketball assistant at LSU and Memphis, is the new coach of the minor league Capital City Go-Go.
“Whatever it is our athletes are trying to work on, we are going to take very detailed notes, we’re going to measure everything that can be measurable and, frankly, just the frequency of conversation,” Winger said. “If too much time goes by between conversations with the athletes, then they don’t necessarily know if they’re improving. . . . We’re going to be in front of our players a lot — probably more than usual.”
Dawkins and Unseld’s biggest development project might be Bilal Coulibaly, their 19-year-old lottery pick who has been in the gym with most of the rest of his new teammates since around Labor Day.
The key will be letting the teenager grow without too much hurry.
“Being the third-youngest player in the league, he’s got a competitiveness on the defensive end that I think will allow him to get on the floor right away,” Dawkins said. “The biggest thing with him is not skipping any steps, not rushing him, allowing him to declare who he is as a player and understanding that his prime is five, six, seven years down the line from now.”
Coulibaly, like the rest of the organization under Winger and Dawkins, figures to be a long-term build.