The Washington Wizards have not won 50 games in a season since 1979, the last time they went to the NBA Finals. They haven’t won a championship since 1978. In my lifetime, there has been little optimism for the state of the organization, beyond drafting franchise savior John Wall. You can point to all sorts of problems, that the locker room was poisoned when Gilbert Arenas and Nick Young played, that DC just seems to be a cursed sports city, that some seasons the team just can’t seem to stay healthy. I will tell you the biggest issue though, has been their front office.
General manager Ernie Grunfeld has been running the front office for the past 13 years. He is, at the moment, the third longest tenured general manager in the NBA. The two in front of him, Sam Bradford and Danny Ainge of the San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics respectively, both have championships in their tenure. The Spurs have arguably been the best team in the NBA over the past 20 years or so, and their team has always been built extremely well. In Boston, Ainge built the first “Big 3” contingent with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. They went to two NBA finals and won one of them. Those general managers have earned their job security. Meanwhile, Grunfeld has yet to build a team that has won over 46 games. They’ve never been to the Eastern Conference Finals under Grunfeld.
By this time it should be evidently clear to owner Ted Leonsis that the Wizards will never be great with the current front office. Grunfeld is simply incapable of creating a complete team. His inability to draft along with his strange roster construction and poor choice of coaches speak for themselves. In 2011, the Wizards had three draft picks, including the number 6 pick. This is the draft that would see the rise of future superstars like Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard. Instead the Wizards tried to go with the home-run pick, drafting European bigman Jan Vesely. He’s not in the league anymore. In fact, none of the players the Wizards picked that year still play for the team. It was perhaps one of the greatest failures of the organization, beyond trading away Chris Webber back in the late 90’s.
That may just be one instance, but the draft is constantly a sore sport for the Wizards. Grunfeld trades away second round picks like they’re nothing, completely ignoring the upside picks in the lower rounds can have. Because of his poor roster construction he is also often forced to trade away first round picks to fix the holes on the team. This past season he traded a first round pick for power forward Markieff Morris. In 2013, he traded a first round pick for center Marcin Gortat. I really like both of these players, but the fact they both need to be traded for in the middle of the season should speak volumes. Last year the Wizards didn’t have a legitimate starting power forward because Grunfeld wanted to try and make it work with Kris Humphries and Jared Dudley.
Speaking of last season, it’s easy to blame the Wizard’s sub-par performance on injuries. They happen. But Grunfeld was the one who built a roster based on old, injury prone veterans. Anyone could have told him last year that Nene would miss at least 20 games with something or other, but he was the main backup center for last year. When he went down again and again, the Wizards were forced to play players too small at the center position. Likewise, when Alan Anderson missed almost the entire season with an ankle injury he incurred before the Wizards signed him, the team was forced to play Garrett Temple and Gary Neal as shooting guards far more than they should have. When backing up someone proven to be as fragile as Bradley Beal, the number one concern should be reliability. Likewise for this year, the current backup shooting guard is Marcus Thornton. Thornton doesn’t do too much of anything well. He has a reputation as a scorer but hasn’t been effective for a few years. He doesn’t defend, doesn’t make plays. Instead of spending money for a valuable player, Grunfeld gave out a three-year, $16 Million dollar contract to Jason Smith, a power forward/center, of which the Wizards already had a plethora of.
It seems to be feast or famine with Grunfeld, having either not enough of a position, or far too many. What the Wizards desperately needed in the offseason was a reliable backup wing who could defend well. Instead they spent most of the offseason not getting Kevin Durant and then almost but not quite getting Al Horford. When all the chips had fallen, there wasn’t too much left to get. So instead the Wizards are relying on Thornton and Kelly Oubre, Washington’s favorite raw prospect who was basically red-shirted his rookie season.
It would just be one thing if the Wizards couldn’t build a team. Imperfect teams do well all the time because of one big reason: their coach. Just look at the Celtics again. Three years ago if you had asked a basketball fan how the Celtics should be doing right now they would tell you they’re probably at the bottom of the league. They had a weird roster filled with players who didn’t seem to mesh. What they do have is Brad Stevens, arguably one of the top-five coaches in the league at the moment. Stevens coached at Baylor, but Ainge needs credit for getting him for the team. He’s the reason why they are where they are right now.
Looking back to the Wizards, they haven’t had a great coach in years. They hired Flip Saunders back in 2009. He was a retread coach who did ok not great with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were buoyed by the excellence of Kevin Garnett. He didn’t work out in Washington and when he was fired, interim coach Randy Wittman took over. I will say this of Wittman. He was instrumental in creating a sense of accountability in the locker room that was previously filled with the likes of Arenas, Young, and Andray Blatche. He got the team to actually play defense. He did what an interim coach was supposed to do. Instead of moving on from him when it was clear the Wizards needed to take the next step, Grunfeld decided to run it back with Wittman for another three years. I will say that when Wittman’s first contract was up, notable coach Stan Van Gundy was readily available. Instead they went with an offensively unoriginal coach with unknowable rotations and an inability to adapt a new game plan when things weren’t working.
So after Grunfeld decided not renew Wittman’s contract this offseason, who did he go with? Scott Brooks, of OKC fame. A defense first, offensively challenged coach. Brooks is an upgrade over Wittman, if for no other reason than he doesn’t keep trying to get the team to play basketball like its 1998, but still. All sorts of improvements were available like Tom Thibodeau or Dave Joerger. So once again the Wizards went with the uninspired retread coach. If Brooks turns out like Saunders before him, it should be on Grunfeld’s head.
After last year, Grunfeld should not have ended the season still working with the Washington Wizards organization. I don’t like to see anyone lose their job, but after 13 years, the team needs something, anything new. The person who replaces him might inevitably be worse. But they certainly could be better. There was an interview with owner Ted Leonsis the other day, where he complained about all the Wizards fans who were in “win now” made. I would say to that, Mr. Leonsis, we don’t want to win now. We’ve just wanted to win sometime in the past 13 years. And so far, that hasn’t happened. So it’s time to cut ties with what we know, and trying something new. It’s time that the Wizards fired Ernie Grunfeld.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA