learning from leonsis

(courtesy photo)

Yesterday Tom Boswell of the Washington Post wrote a column about the state of the D.C. sports scene which he appropriately summarized as “misery loves company.” In it, Boswell addressed the sorry state of the Redskins, Wizards and Nationals.

The article gives reason for cautious optimism with names like Bruce Allen, Mike Shanahan, Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman taking over for failures like Vinny Cerrato, Jim Zorn, Jim Bowden and Manny Acta, although admittingly darker days are ahead for the local basketball team. Noticeably absent from the miserable list is the name of the hockey team. The Capitals, who despite falling asleep at the wheel last night, continue to be the only hope for success in the local sports world.

Led by owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee, the Capitals went from doormat to legitimate championship contender thanks to a lengthy rebuilding plan. Because Leonsis is quite possibly the most fan friendly owner in sports today, he was kind enough to share his plan for that rebuilding phase. We’re posting it here in hopes that it might end up in front of the respective front offices of the Redskins, Wizards and Nationals.

What I have learned about a rebuild to date: A 10 point plan. A Washington Capitals perspective:

1. Ask yourself the big question: “Can this team – as constructed – ever win a championship?” If the answer is yes, stay the course and try to find the right formula. If the answer is no, then plan to rebuild. Don’t fake it. Really do the analytics and be brutally honest. Once you have your answer, develop the game plan to try to really win a championship. Always run away from experts that say, “We are just one player away.” Recognize there is no easy and fast systemic fix. It will be a bumpy ride. Have confidence in the plan. Trust and verify: the progress – but don’t deviate from the plan.

2. Once you make the decision to rebuild, be transparent. Articulate the plan and sell it loudly and proudly to all constituencies, the media, the organization, the fans, your partners, family and anyone who will listen. Agree to what makes for a successful rebuild. In our case it is “a great young team with upside that can make the playoffs for a decade and win a Stanley Cup or two.”

3. Once you decide to rebuild bring the house down to the foundation. Be consistent with your plan and with your asks. We always sought to get “a pick and a prospect” in all of our trades. We believed that volume would yield better results than precision. We decided to trade multiple stars at their prime or peak to get a large volume of young players. Young players will get better as they age, so you have built in upside. Youngsters push vets to play better to keep their jobs, and they stay healthier, and they are more fun – less jaded by pro sports.

4. Commit to building around the draft. Invest in scouting, development, and a system. Articulate that system and stay with it so that all players feel comfortable – know the language – know what is expected of them – read the Oriole Way. It worked and it is a great tutorial. Draft players that fit the system, not the best player. Draft the best player for the system. Don’t deviate or get seduced by agents, media demands, or by just stats or hype. Envision how this player will slide into your system.

5. Be patient with young players – throw them in the pool to see if they can swim. Believe in them. Show them loyalty. Re-sign the best young players to long term high priced deals. Show the players you are very loyal to them as compared to free agents who achieved highly for another team. Teach them. Celebrate their successes. Use failures as a way to teach and improve. Coaches must be tough but kind to build confidence.

6. Make sure the GM, coach, owner and business folks are on the exact same page as to deliverables, metrics of success, ultimate goal, process and measured outcomes. Always meet to discuss analytics and don’t be afraid of the truth that the numbers reveal. Manage to outcomes. Manage to let the GM and coach NOT be afraid of taking risks, and make sure there are no surprises. Over communicate. Act like an ethnic family – battle around the dinner table – never in public. Be tight as a team. Protect and enhance each other. Let the right people do their jobs.

7. No jerks allowed. Implement a no jerk policy. Draft and develop and keep high character people. Team chemistry is vital to success. Make sure the best and highest paid players are coachable, show respect to the system, want to be in the city, love to welcome new, young players to the team, have respect for the fan base, show joy in their occupation, get the system, believe in the coaches, have fun in practice, and want to be gym rats. Dump quickly distractions. Life is too short to drink bad wine.

8. Add veterans to the team via shorter term deals as free agents. Signing long-term, expensive deals for vets is very risky. We try to add vets to the mix for two year or three year deals. They fill in around our young core. They are very important for leadership, but they must complement the young core (NOT try to overtake them or be paid more than them). Identify and protect the core. Add veterans to complement them, not visa versa.

9. Measure and improve. Have shared metrics – know what the progress is and where it ranks on the timeline – be honest in all appraisals; don’t be afraid to trade young assets for other draft picks to build back end backlog – know the aging of contracts – protect “optionality” to make trades at deadlines or in off season; never get in cap jail. Having dry powder is very important to make needed moves.

10. Never settle – never rest – keep on improving. Around the edges to the plan, have monthly, quarterly and annual check ups. Refresh the plan when needed but for the right reasons – “how are we doing against our metrics of success and where are we on our path to a championship.” Never listen to bloggers, media, so called experts – to thine own self be true. Enjoy the ride.

This list is especially interesting considering it is widely believed that Leonsis will take over ownership of the Wizards in the not-too-distant future. When we get some time in the next week or so, we’ll try to take a good, hard look at the Wiz and this plan and see what we can come up with. Until then, we should all continue to give thanks for having Leonsis and the Caps in our life.

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