June 23, 2024

Wizards hire Brian Keefe as next coach: Why this made sense for Washington

WASHINGTON — After a search focused on interviewing potential first-time NBA head coaches, the Washington Wizards have hired in-house candidate Brian Keefe, who served as the team’s interim coach for the final 39 games of the 2023-24 regular season, the team announced late Wednesday afternoon.

This is the outcome executives and coaches from rival teams expected all along — and also the outcome many Wizards players hoped for.

Throughout Keefe’s interim coaching tenure, Keefe received praise from players and Washington officials for holding players accountable, his player-development skills and his collaborative approach with people throughout the Wizards’ basketball operations department.

Washington executives identified those skills as crucial traits for their coach during this phase of their rebuild — a phase in which the team almost certainly will lose a lot of games, build through the NBA Draft and try to create a culture in which young players not only thrive but also learn how to play unselfishly on offense and with toughness on defense.

Keefe, 48, demonstrated he could accomplish those objectives during his half season as the Wizards’ interim coach. In that sense, team executives viewed him as a known commodity and, perhaps, as less risky than hiring someone from outside the organization.

He also is profoundly familiar with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s way of doing things, which is essential for Washington because its front office is led by a pair of former Thunder executives, Monumental Basketball president Michael Winger and Wizards general manager Will Dawkins.

Keefe had spent 13 seasons as an NBA assistant coach — six of those seasons in Oklahoma City — before Washington hired him as Wes Unseld Jr.’s lead assistant coach prior to the 2023-24 season.

The Wizards’ decision to hire Keefe occurred after team executives spoke Tuesday night and early Wednesday, a team source said. Those final internal front-office deliberations capped a deliberate process in which team executives interviewed four to six candidates, including Keefe.

Team officials would not confirm the names of the candidates they spoke with, but those candidates participated in the process even though Keefe was widely regarded throughout the NBA as the front-runner for the job.

One of Keefe’s most pressing tasks in the weeks ahead will be to work with Dawkins to hire a new staff of assistant coaches. After layoffs in mid-April, the only assistant coach who remains with Washington is David Vanterpool.

The Wizards held a 7-36 record last season when Winger and Dawkins removed Unseld as coach in late January. At that time, Washington ranked 29th in the league in defensive efficiency, last in defensive-rebounding percentage and had suffered an inordinate number of blowout losses.

No player struggled more than offseason addition Jordan Poole, who typically took low-percentage shots and whose effort on defense wasn’t good enough.

The Wizards amassed an 8-31 record under Keefe, and although that may not look like a major improvement, the team performed with more discipline and more resilience under his watch. From Jan. 25 onward, Washington ranked 25th in defensive efficiency, 27th in defensive-rebounding percentage and showed more toughness.

Those may seem like small gains, but it’s also important to note the Wizards traded away starting center Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline and were missing starting point guard Tyus Jones for the final month of the regular season because of an injury.

Comparing the first 43 games under Unseld to the 39 games under Keefe is like comparing apples to oranges, with Keefe arguably facing more obstacles.

Keefe made his boldest move immediately after the All-Star break. He moved Poole out of the starting lineup to put the ball in Poole’s hands more often and open a starting spot for rookie Bilal Coulibaly. But those reasons were only a part of Keefe’s rationale.

Keefe also was holding Poole accountable for his subpar defense and shot selection. Poole responded by playing the best basketball of his Washington tenure. In his final 26 games, Poole averaged 20.9 points and 5.8 assists per game and made 36 percent of his 3-point tries.

After the season ended, Poole was asked by a reporter what characteristics the team needed from its next coach. His answer was a telling vote of confidence in Keefe.

“I can really only just really speak on the stuff that B.K. has brought since he’s been here, and I think he’s been really good for our young team: the detail-orientedness that he brings, the structure that he brings,” Poole said.

“He loves the game, and that’s something that goes a really long way, especially at the highest level. And he’s willing and very genuine and authentic about putting our team (and) putting guys in positions to be successful and play to their strengths and really unlocking them because he cares about them as individuals. He’s done a really good job.”

Required reading

(Photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)