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    Why Wes Unseld Jr. was removed as Wizards coach despite the team’s flawed roster

    WASHINGTON — No single moment, no single loss prompted Washington Wizards executives to remove Wes Unseld Jr. as their head coach Thursday.

    The decision occurred because of an unmistakable pattern this season.

    Although many players made individual improvements, the team as a whole continued to struggle, with precious few exceptions. The defense looked inept. Players’ efforts often lagged. The same mistakes recurred game after game. And through it all, Unseld made no changes to the starting lineup when players were healthy and did not cut the minutes of underperforming rotation players.

    The Wizards won only seven of their 43 games this season under Unseld, but the tipping point wasn’t the sheer number of losses. It was more about how they lost most of those games. Monumental Basketball president Michael Winger and Wizards general manager Will Dawkins could not envision things improving this season if Unseld remained as the coach.

    “It sort of became clearer that there was just this sustained something less than our most competitive selves,” Winger said during a news conference. “You just kept feeling it and seeing it, and Wes did, too. I mean, he saw it. He knew it. He felt it. And he gave it everything he had.”

    The new front office gave Unseld an inherently flawed roster this season, with an undersized starting backcourt tandem of 6-foot-4 shooting guard Jordan Poole, whose effort on defense is often lacking, and 6-foot point guard Tyus Jones. Their height and length disadvantages impact the entire defense.

    Until Washington traded for Marvin Bagley III, Isaiah Livers and two future second-round picks on Jan. 14, Unseld was forced to deploy either immobile Danilo Gallinari, who was playing out of position, or Mike Muscala as the backup center.


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    But Winger and Dawkins concluded that Unseld should have coaxed more improvement — and more fight — out of the roster. The Wizards faced deficits of at least 22 points in 18 of their 36 losses this season with Unseld as their coach.

    “Specifically, we know our energy wasn’t always there,” Dawkins said during the news conference. “We know our competitiveness was not always there. And defensively, there were nights that were unacceptable, and those are things that we want to continue to work on. And we think that a fresh voice right here, right now, is what we need, and also (is needed) for the betterment of the future.”

    Winger and Dawkins took pains to praise Unseld’s character and said Unseld will move into an advisory role within the team’s front office.

    “We’re a better organization because of Wes,” Winger said. “Our players are individually better because of Wes. In the six or seven months that Will and I have been here, we’re better because of Wes. And I’m really grateful that he was here.”

    Third-year swingman Corey Kispert said he was “heartbroken for Wes,” adding that Unseld “is a really, really good man.” Poole said he was thankful to Unseld for helping him adjust after his offseason trade from Golden State to Washington.

    But some players indicated Thursday that they did not feel they had been held accountable enough.

    When asked about the front office’s decision to elevate lead assistant coach Brian Keefe to the interim coaching role for the remainder of the season, Kispert offered a telling response.

    “B.K. keeps it real 100 percent of the time, and he’ll say it like it is and he won’t hold back for better or for worse,” Kispert said. “And we need a good dose of that in this locker room. If we want to grow and be the team that we think we can be for the remainder of the season, we’ve got to be held accountable for what we do and we don’t do.”

    Jordan Poole has struggled on both ends for Washington. (Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

    Forward Kyle Kuzma said: “I think as a whole right now, we’re looking at an organizational mindset shift, and that’s defense and accountability, and I think those are the first two building blocks that’s going to be an emphasis and something that we kind of lacked over the past 40-something games. … When you’re talking about competitiveness and effort, the number-one teacher of that is the bench. So if you’re not doing that — if you’re not playing for your teammate, if you’re not giving it your all — you can come learn on the bench, and I think that’s going to resonate.”

    Unseld employed the same starting lineup of Jones, Poole, forward Deni Avdija, Kuzma and center Daniel Gafford in 37 of Washington’s 43 games this season. In the other six games, either Poole or Gafford did not play because of injuries.

    Unseld compiled a 35-47 during his first season as coach, a season marked by internal friction from players who were upset about their roles on offense and by Bradley Beal’s season-ending wrist injury that he suffered in late January.

    The Wizards went 35-47 last season as the Wizards once again suffered from extensive injuries but also underperformed on defense. At the end of that season, team president and general manager Tommy Sheppard indicated there wasn’t enough accountability.


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    Wizards Ted Leonsis fired Sheppard in April. Leonsis hired Winger, and Winger then hired Dawkins. The franchise jettisoned Beal and drafted raw, but promising, 19-year-old forward Bilal Coulibaly from France. The new executives directed more resources into the franchise’s infrastructure.

    Under Unseld this season, Washington ranked 29th leaguewide in points allowed per possession, 25th in points scored per possession and last in defensive-rebounding percentage.

    Unseld’s supporters throughout the league — and there are many within the coaching profession — often point out that it would be difficult for any coach to find even a semblance of success with Washington’s roster.

    But even in the early stages of their rebuild, Wizards officials expected more from their team.

    “We talk internally a lot about (how) we can tolerate losing a game in which we were competitive for 48 minutes,” Winger said. “We can tolerate losing a basketball game where we see the team improving as a collective. In the absence of 48 minutes of competitiveness, in the absence of collective team-basketball progress over the course of time, irrespective of the individual improvement, we have an issue to address.”

    In the weeks and months to follow, Winger and Dawkins will see if their determination was correct. They’ll see if the new voice that Keefe will provide can actually make a difference with the roster they have assembled.

    (Top photo of Wes Unseld Jr. and Bilal Coulibaly: Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)



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