The Washington Wizards’ new front office has long maintained this season, the first of what is expected to be a lengthy rebuild, is meant to be about forming good basketball habits and going about things the right way.
Forty-three games into a project that has included embarrassing blowouts, a lack of consistent energy and untenable defense, the leadership determined a change was needed. It came in the form of a Thursday morning announcement from Monumental Basketball President Michael Winger and General Manager Will Dawkins that Wes Unseld Jr. would be removed from his position as coach and placed into an advisory role in the front office.
His top assistant, Brian Keefe, a veteran coach who joined Unseld’s staff over the summer from the Brooklyn Nets, will serve as interim coach. Keefe coached the team Thursday night in a 123-108 loss to the Utah Jazz at Capital One Arena, his first time serving officially as an NBA head coach and first time serving as head coach in any capacity since he coached the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Summer League with a young James Harden and Russell Westbrook in his backcourt in 2009.
“We can tolerate losing a game in which we were competitive for 48 minutes. We can tolerate losing a basketball game where we see the team improving as a collective,” Winger said in a news conference before the game. “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. And that’s sort of how that conversation unfolded.”
Unseld was in the middle of his third season helming the Wizards and steps away from the job with a 77-130 (.372) record, including 7-36 (.163) this season.
The Wizards will conduct a search for Unseld’s permanent successor this offseason.
Winger and Dawkins painted the coaching change as a culmination of weeks of discussion, together with Unseld, about what Washington could do to improve.
Although the move follows the Milwaukee Bucks’ sudden firing of Adrian Griffin on Tuesday just eight months into the job, it is highly unusual timing for the Wizards, a franchise that has shown patience with its coaches under previous leadership.
The announcement also came the morning of the second night in a set of back-to-back games — Washington lost Wednesday night to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Winger said timing was “not part of the calculus” of the decision and there was no sense of urgency to move on from Unseld.
“It was just, we had a conversation last night, which we do often, and it was just one of those where it was like: ‘Man, how are we going to get better? How are we going to sort of, ratchet up the dial on competitiveness?’ And we came to the conclusion that the fellas just need to hear a new voice,” Winger said.
But at least in the short-term future, Unseld’s voice won’t be totally missing from the organization. The 48-year-old is under contract through the 2024-25 season and, after some time off, will take on an advisory role in the front office that will keep him connected to the team.
“We’re a better organization because of Wes. Our players are individually better because of Wes. In the six or seven months I’ve been here, we’re better because of Wes,” Winger said. “And I’m really grateful that he was here. … His interest in coming back is in our interest, our strong desire, and having him back is sort of a testament to his value to the organization.”
“I am grateful to have served as head coach of the Washington Wizards,” Unseld said in a team statement released Thursday morning. “I look forward to this new opportunity to work toward our organization’s continued progress.”
Transitioning to the front office means Unseld remains involved with an organization deeply connected to his family. Unseld’s father was the central fixture of the franchise’s most sustained run of excellence, led it to an NBA championship in 1978 and later served as its coach and general manager. The Hall of Famer first hired his son as a scout in Washington shortly after his graduation from Johns Hopkins in 1997.
The younger Unseld then worked his way through the ranks in various organizations before serving as an assistant coach for 16 years, crafting a highly respected reputation along the way.
His first two seasons in Washington fell far below expectations with rosters built around guard Bradley Beal, who was traded this past offseason.
The Wizards last made the playoffs in 2020-21 behind a pairing of Beal and Westbrook in the team’s final season under previous coach Scott Brooks, losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. They haven’t made it past the first round since 2017.
“Defense has to be our calling card,” Keefe said in a pregame news conference. “We have to see improvement on that. That’s going to be my first step. And I’ve always thought that. Basic tenets of the NBA — I like unselfish basketball; I like spacing; I like making the simple play. But our focus right now, for us, is we got to see growth defensively.”
The longtime assistant arrived in Washington over the summer with expertise in helping young players develop. Keefe, 47, like Winger and Dawkins, has deep ties to the Thunder and followed Sam Presti from the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 when the Thunder was still the Seattle SuperSonics.
With the Thunder, he worked extensively with Kevin Durant, Harden and Westbrook before leaving in 2015 for the New York Knicks, with whom he helped develop then-rookie Kristaps Porzingis. After one year with New York and three with the Los Angeles Lakers, he returned for a second stint with the Thunder beginning in 2019, working closely with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, before spending two seasons with the Nets. He’s spent the year working closely with rookie Bilal Coulibaly in Washington.
Players on Thursday described Keefe as both blunt and energetic, with a presence about him that could refocus a locker room that has struggled to hold each other accountable on court.
“A lot of people are focused on something that’s very micro, which is the coaching, but I think as a whole right now, we’re looking [at] an organizational mind-set shift, and that’s, like, defense and accountability,” said Kyle Kuzma, who led the team with 26 points against the Jazz. “Those are the first two building blocks that’s going to be an emphasis and something that we kind of lacked over the last 40-something games.”
He called the current Wizards’ era a “season of discovery” in which the team wants to try new things stylistically and experiment.
But first, Keefe and the Wizards must address the basics.
“Specifically, we know our energy wasn’t always there. We know our competitiveness was not always there. And defensively there were nights that were unacceptable,” Dawkins said. “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.”