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It’s been a long wait, but the Wizards have finally chosen their next head coach.
Tommy Sheppard and company have finalized a four-year contract agreement with Wes Unseld Jr. – the son of one of the best players in franchise history. Unseld will be formally introduced as head coach in a press conference on Monday at 3:30 p.m. ET.
It’s often difficult for NBA fans to know how qualified a first-time head coach is. Media narratives – and particularly the ideas that become popular on social media – can be misleading. That seems particularly true for Unseld, who is much more than his father’s son.
Although the young Unseld has never been a head coach, he’s been an assistant for 16 years, and his NBA experience began long before that.
At the conclusion of his four-year playing career at Johns Hopkins, he joined Washington’s organization as a scout – serving under his father, who was the General Manager.
After eight years in his role of personnel and advance scouting, Unseld was promoted to assistant coach, a role in which he stayed from 2005–11. He initially served under Eddie Jordan, followed by Ed Tapscott (interim) and Flip Saunders. Throughout much of his time in Washington (including as a scout), he was credited with formulating the team’s offensive game plan. He also held a secondary coaching/scouting role with the Mystics of the WNBA.
When the Wizards opted to not promote him to a higher assistant position, Unseld departed to join the Golden State Warriors staff. He was on Mark Jackson’s first season at the helm – the first, strike-shortened year of the “Splash Brothers” era (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson).
Unseld was an assistant coach under Jacque Vaughn in all four of his seasons with the Orlando Magic. He and Vaughn were fired in February 2015, after the team had gotten off to a 15-37 start. It wasn’t Unseld’s most ceremonious gig, but the organization held him in high enough regard for them to nearly hire him this offseason.
For the last six seasons, he’s been an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets, reuniting him with lifelong friend Tim Connelly (their GM) – who interviewed for Washington’s GM position two years ago and reportedly gave Unseld a strong endorsement during this process. His entire tenure in Denver has been in service of Michael Malone, a fellow Marylander (a Loyola graduate). Following Unseld’s first season with the Nuggets, he was named Malone’s top assistant and unofficial defensive coordinator.
Unseld brings a lot to the table. His scouting background has translated every step of the way. He was in Washington during an era when young players were asked to contribute more. In Unseld’s first two seasons as a coach, Gilbert Arenas (prior to turning 26 years old) had his top two scoring seasons. A similarly inexperienced Caron Butler had his two lone All-Star seasons under Unseld’s watch. The league has seen what Curry, Thompson and the Warriors have become over the last decade; and the development of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. (among others) in Denver turned the Nuggets into perennial Western Conference Finals contenders.
As the architect of Washington’s offensive game plan, the Wizards had a top-10 scoring offense in the three seasons from 2004–07 (Arenas’ best three years). While that side of the ball isn’t his calling card and a strong assistant may be needed to help in that area, he’s shown the ability to craft a successful offense. Fred Katz of The Athletic has also reported that Unseld pitched ideas for how to better utilize second-year forward Deni Avdija as a playmaker.
Unseld seems to be great defensively, though. He’s consistently held Denver’s defensive rating above league average (including No. 11 this season and No. 10 in 2018-19) despite not having elite defensive personnel. He’s not one of those loud defensive-minded coaches, but he’s a very active communicator. Particularly compared to how silent Scott Brooks and company were during games, a hands-on coach like Unseld seems like a very valuable addition.
In Katz’s recent story highlighting the previously named finalists for the Wizards head job, an anonymous source was very complimentary of Unseld, identifying him as strong at X’s and O’s and a great communicator, but also a player’s coach. For the most part, words like this are only words, but this description sounds like the perfect formula for a very good head coach.
What it Means For The Franchise
As many experts have pointed out, playoff contenders don’t usually hire first-time head coaches, as that’s typically the type of move rebuilding organizations make. Unseld is regarded as someone, however, who has been around the block for so long in prominent roles in strong organizations, that there shouldn’t be a particularly long learning curve.
By all accounts, the Wizards don’t intend to trade Bradley Beal, and Russell Westbrook’s contract makes the star point guard virtually untradeable. That leaves Washington in a position where they have to compete for the playoffs – and ideally a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.
Regardless, this offseason is extremely important for the Wizards. With a rookie head coach like Unseld, they may have to be particularly active in terms of acquiring player personnel.
Theoretically, a team that has Beal and Westbrook on it should be able to acquire some fairly cheap veterans who could help them pursue a playoff run. However, Washington shouldn’t wait for someone to fall into its lap.
I believe the Wizards should attempt to trade for a relatively high-profile player who could round out a “big three” – which is in vogue in today’s NBA. Depending on the timing of the trade, it may require forfeiting the team’s No. 15 overall pick in this year’s draft.
If they keep their draft pick, though, the Wizards will need to round out what they’re looking for. They arguably could upgrade at center, but the most obvious need is a small forward – or at least someone who can shoot from three-point range.
Some of the most frequently discussed names at No. 15 are Corey Kispert (Gonzaga), Chris Duarte (Oregon) and Trey Murphy (Virginia) – although there are others like Moses Moody (Arkansas) or James Bouknight (UConn) who they would likely select, but should be off the board by the time the Wizards are on the clock.
Kispert is a great spot-up shooter, but limited in other areas. Duarte is a more polished player in various areas, including off the dribble and defense while also shooting well, but his long-term upside is considered more limited. Murphy is the most prototypical 3&D player, but a bit more raw and less likely to immediately be a helpful piece.
There’s a lot to accomplish in Washington this offseason, including rounding out a coaching staff. However, bringing Unseld on board as the new head coach is a great step in the right direction. Whether it happens in Year 1 or not, the Wizards will finish better than four games below .500 – as they did this season – in the near future.