For a team desperately trying to reshape its image and make itself a permanent fixture among the traditional NBA powerhouses, it’s the little maneuvers that go a long way. So for the Washington Wizards—a team still wiping off the dirt from years of being buried in the NBA graveyard—every little move counts.
Second round draft picks, under-the-radar free agency signings and assistant coaching hires can literally make or break a still-fragile team as they nurture and grow their confidence. With the recent loss of assistant coach Sam Cassell to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Wizards could be kicking themselves later.
The former combo guard turned assistant coach made a mark this offseason as he led the Wizards summer league squad on an impressive run, drawing up plays and making savvy in-game coaching calls along the way. The Clippers noticed, and an offer of the Los Angeles lifestyle and a chance to coach a supremely talented roster was enough for coach Cassell to catch the next flight out of town. Cassell, 44, was perfect for a team directly powered by its two young guards, Bradley Beal, 21, and John Wall, 23. Cassell operated at both guard spots at a high level during his long NBA tenure, a stretch that saw him collect two titles.
Wall and Beal’s obvious respect for Cassell was evident over the years, and their improvement under his tutelage has been off the charts. Cassell worked hard with Wall to create a mid-range game that not only helped Wall’s overall jump shot, but his confidence as well. Beal arrived in the 2012 draft as a pure jump shooter, but his one-on-one game—a Cassell specialty during his playing days—has improved so much that a future All-Star selection should be in the cards.
Cassel’s summer coaching audition locked him in as a likely replacement someday for current head coach Randy Wittman, especially with Wittman on a short contract. Washington could have easily promoted Cassell as the young, hip new coach with the NBA player background, but that luxury is gone with Cassell now in L.A.
The Wizards have traditionally had trouble luring marquee coaches and talent into the District, so holding onto the assets they have would be a sensible thing. Maybe Cassell never gets a shot at a head coaching job. But he must possess some type of potential if the Clippers, a team quickly becoming a powerhouse in the NBA, made a cross-country effort to bring him in. After their most successful season in years, the Wizards have had a pretty solid offseason, capped by landing perennial All-Star forward Paul Pierce—who, ironically, was greatly influenced by Cassell. Washington can overcome Cassell’s departure: the team has a strong, young base and the surrounding talent is actually NBA level. But if they needed an ace in the hole, the Wizards lost him to Los Angeles.