WASHINGTON (AP) — Amid a rebuild without much of a foundation, the Washington Wizards front office felt the players needed to hear from a new voice.
Wes Unseld Jr. was ousted Thursday as the Wizards’ coach midway through his third season with the team, which has the second-fewest wins in the NBA. Assistant Brian Keefe was named interim coach.
Unseld will remain with the team in a front-office advisory role. He was cast aside with the Wizards having lost five straight and 11 of 12; those runs of futility continued Thursday night when Washington fell 123-108 to the Utah Jazz.
Wizards president Michael Winger, who is overseeing the team’s rebuild, said he decided to make the change after several meetings including him, Unseld, and general manager Will Dawkins.
“We would talk about the team. We would talk about the competitiveness of the team, player accountability, joy — our principles,” Winger said. “It sort of became clearer that there was just this sustained something less than our competitive selves and you just kept feeling it and seeing it, and Wes did, too. He saw it. He knew it. He felt it. And he gave it everything he had.
“The team he inherited from us this season is significantly different from the teams he had the last couple of years. The job he took two years ago was different than when he had this year.”
Washington’s top two players — Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis — were traded in the offseason, with the Wizards receiving little in return. Nonetheless, Winger felt the players on the roster weren’t competitive enough.
“These are conversations we have with them,” Winger said. “We met with them today, there’s not a single player in that locker room that’s happy with this outcome. Every single one of them raised their hand when we asked the question, ‘Who in this room is responsible for this?’ Every single player raised their hand. They know it.”
The Wizards said they will search for a full-time replacement in the offseason.
For now, players are focused on trying to turn the season around.
“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 it as an organizational mindset shift and that’s defense and accountability,” forward Kyle Kuzma said. “Those are the first two building blocks that are going to be an emphasis in something we kind of lacked over the past 40-something games, so that is something that you’re going to expect.
“And we talked about competitiveness and effort. The number one teacher of that is the bench. So … if you’re not playing for your teammates, if you’re not giving your all, then you can come down on the bench and I think that’s going to resonate with everybody.”
Unseld, 48, is the son of the late Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, who helped the then-Bullets win the 1978 NBA title and later coached the team. The Wizards went 77-130 under the younger Unseld.
“I am grateful to have served as head coach of the Washington Wizards,” Unseld said in a statement released by the team. “I look forward to this new opportunity to work toward our organization’s continued progress.”
Unseld is a longtime NBA assistant, spending six seasons with the Wizards from 2005-11, one with Golden State, three with Orlando, and six with Denver before returning to Washington in 2021.
“It was just time for a new voice and we’re going to move with BK and listen to him and follow his lead,” guard Tyus Jones said. “We’re 40 games in and we weren’t making the strides the front office wanted us to be making and we’re going to continue to try to improve and try to do so.”
Winger was hired last May and tabbed Dawkins as GM shortly after.
“There are things stylistically that we want to see on the court. Specifically, we know our energy was not always there. We know our competitiveness was not always there and defensively some nights were unacceptable,” Dawkins said. “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 for the betterment of the future.”
Keefe joined Washington in July after spending the past two seasons as an assistant with Brooklyn. He has also been on the staff with Oklahoma City and the New York Knicks. He started his career as a video coordinator with the San Antonio Spurs, who won a championship in 2007.
“Very lucky to start where I started,” Keefe said. “I started in San Antonio a long time ago and I got to see the best in the world do it. Gregg Popovich, Tim (Duncan), Tony (Parker), Manu (Ginobili). A lot of guys who were ultra-professional guys.”
Winger said Unseld will remain an asset to the front office as the Wizards try to achieve their long-term goals. Dawkins looks forward to having the basketball lifer around.
“When you are at the forefront of what we’re trying to do and you build those first bricks and you put those down and eventually years down the line you see what they become, you take pride in that,” Dawkins said. “And we have a lot of pride knowing that he’s still going to be working with us in the front office, identifying those things and helping us get to where we want to go.”
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