Brian Keefe’s job as the Wizards’ coach will be much tougher than it looks

WASHINGTON — The Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards have sought new head coaches this spring.

So, let’s be clear about one thing from the jump and put what’s happened in Washington into an accurate context: The Wizards’ vacancy differed from all the rest.

In a league where front offices typically judge coaches first and foremost on winning games and keeping star players happy, Monumental Basketball president Michael Winger and Wizards general manager Will Dawkins will evaluate their hire, Brian Keefe, on how well Keefe improves players and keeps the team afloat during a multi-year stretch in which the team will lose far more often than it wins. That is what Winger and Dawkins mean when they speak of the current “phase” of the franchise’s rebuild. This period is about maximizing the Wizards’ draft lottery odds while also developing all of the players on the roster, especially youngsters such as Bilal Coulibaly and the team’s upcoming draft picks.

This is the subtext behind one of the most telling comments Dawkins made during Keefe’s introductory made-for-TV news conference Tuesday. “Brian has a unique ability to see people and things for what they can be, not for where they are or who they are right now currently,” Dawkins said. “And when you think of our team and the phase that we’re in, that’s really, really important, and you’ve got to have that belief to put (that belief) in people and see where it can go. We’re in the bottom phase of building that foundation. I think we put some of those blocks together this year. The bottom takes some time, and he knows that.”

Because Keefe will be free from the expectation of winning games for the foreseeable future, his job may sound easy compared to the pressure cookers around the league. With the Lakers, Darvin Ham lasted only two seasons as he tried to win a title and keep LeBron James content. In Phoenix, Frank Vogel survived for only one season as he guided a championship-or-bust roster headed by Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal. In Cleveland, with questions swirling about Donovan Mitchell’s long-term future, J.B. Bickerstaff lost his job despite a second-round playoff appearance.

Make no mistake, Keefe still will face significant challenges, albeit challenges different in scope from the ones that Ham, Vogel and Bickerstaff confronted.

How will Keefe build purpose within a team that could lose upwards of 65 games a season for the next two seasons? How will he convince his players to play with unselfishness on offense and with effort on defense when so many of the players will attempt to stand out and earn their next contracts? How will he keep veteran players positive as the losses accumulate?

Keefe understands that player development involves much more than improving physical skills like 3-point shooting or dribbling in traffic. True player development involves holding players accountable for playing the right way.

“‘Accountability,’ obviously, is a word you can get thrown around, but accountability is creating a standard,” Keefe said in an interview with The Athletic. “In player development, where you get better is by working on your craft, by being diligent in the areas that you need to improve on, to having a mindset about believing those things. Well, if you aren’t doing those things, then we’re going to have a conversation about that, because that’s something we expect from all of our players. We set that. There’s a standard to that. Those things do go hand-in-hand.”

This is one of the reasons Wizards executives selected Keefe. During his 39-game stint as Washington’s interim coach, he showed he can coax players to buy in on playing within a team concept. And when players didn’t meet that standard, Keefe held them accountable. Keefe moved Jordan Poole to the bench after Poole did not improve his defense and continued to take too many low-percentage shots. Keefe would call timeouts — even within the opening minutes of a quarter — when players would not hustle on defense; in those instances, he told them he would sub them off the floor if they didn’t ramp up their effort.

Team and league sources told The Athletic that players raved about Keefe during their mid-April exit interviews with team executives.

“He’s learned through the years how transparency is the most important thing that people value, and he has a strong belief in how he thinks the game should be played,” Dawkins said during an interview with The Athletic.

“It should be a game of team basketball where it’s ‘we’ over ‘me.’ And when he first got there (as interim coach), he addressed some of the things that weren’t necessarily being addressed or weren’t as important to some that were in the locker room and said, ‘These are important to me. This is why. This is what I’m going to hold us accountable for. These are the measures we’re going to try to live up to.’

“And it wasn’t about wins and losses. It was about those things. And guys realize that, ‘If we do that, we’ll play, we’ll be more competitive, and we’ll get better.’ And when you are clear and direct and everybody knows what the mission is and how they’re being graded and judged and how they’re getting playing time, people buy in.”

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One of Brian Keefe’s tasks will be to help young players such as Bilal Coulibaly improve at a time when the team is likely to lose far more games than it will win. (Geoff Burke / USA Today)

Losing is corrosive, and it can derail the development of even the most well-meaning of young players.

But in a seeming contradiction, for a rebuilding franchise, losing lots of games is akin to taking medicine. For the Wizards to become relevant again, for them to ever have any chance to compete for championships, they must — must! — acquire players who are talented enough to become superstars. Perhaps Coulibaly eventually will exceed everyone’s expectations on the offensive end, and Dawkins likely will take a big high-upside swing with the second overall pick in this month’s draft. But for now, it’s difficult to envision any player on Washington’s roster developing into an All-NBA First Team player.

The Wizards’ plan to acquire high-level talent is through the draft. Cooper Flagg and Ace Bailey beckon in 2025. Current high-school standouts Cameron Boozer and AJ Dybantsa Jr. loom in 2026. And the only way for Washington to draft one of them is to luck out in the lottery.

Other teams that were in this spring’s coach-hiring cycle are further along than the Wizards. The Hornets, who hired Boston Celtics assistant coach Charles Lee, already have point guard LaMelo Ball and wing Brandon Miller on their roster. The Nets, who hired Sacramento Kings associate head coach Jordi Fernández, have talented two-way player Mikal Bridges on their roster, own future draft picks and possess salary-cap flexibility.

As difficult as Keefe’s job will be, at least he and team executives are aligned on the Wizards’ long-term plan. Winger and Dawkins have mapped out the team’s roster-construction strategy. During the 2023-24 season, Washington established a player-development program in which all of the players are evaluated by how well they meet clear goals. Those goals often dovetail with sound team basketball; it’s not unheard of, for instance, for players to be evaluated on how often they set up in a proper defensive stance or box-out effectively on rebounding opportunities.

“Hopefully, they know that I care about them as people, that I want the best for them,” Keefe told The Athletic. “Then, creating a shared environment where we create a standard, it’s not just me by myself. We’re doing this together and partnering with them to put the best product that we can on the court.”

The long-term goal is for Keefe to remain the Wizards’ coach past the early stages of their rebuild, to be the coach when, hopefully, the franchise has high-ceiling players and shifts into winning mode.

The task ahead, though, will be tough.

“What we’re trying to do is hard,” Dawkins said. “We understand that. But we also believe it’s the right thing to do. And it’s hard because it’s a lot of habit-building, it’s a lot of learning, it’s a lot of togetherness without what people typically call the most important result: the wins, the championship.

“We still have those aspirations. We still have those goals. But we have to build the right habits and do it the right way and bring in people to where you get in situations, and you learn now for when you’re four or five years down the line in those situations.”

That’s one of the areas Keefe will be responsible for. When team executives shed his interim coaching title, they made him one of the franchise’s key caretakers. And, as he helps steer that ship, he’ll be the one charged with navigating those turbulent seas.

It’ll be much tougher than it looks.

(Top photo: Geoff Burke / USA Today)

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