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For the first time in more than a quarter century, a professional sports franchise in one of the big four leagues located in Washington, D.C. brought home a championship.
While a team needs an abundance of luck to accomplish such a remarkable feat, there’s more to it than that. Closing your eyes, crossing your fingers, and praying that some sort of divine intervention bails you out at the 11th hour doesn’t really constitute much of a plan. Unless, of course, if you’re the general manager of the Washington Wizards.
Fortunately for Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld, most D.C. sports fans are still swimming victory laps in fountains and therefore missed his latest attempt to set the D.C. basketball franchise back another few years.
But before diving into this year’s NBA Draft, let’s pause for a minute and go back to the days immediately following Washington’s postseason elimination at the hands of the Toronto Raptors. During his end-of-season exit interview, point guard and face of the franchise John Wall decided to lay all of his cards on the table and spell out exactly what he felt needed to change in order for his team to compete with the league’s best teams.
“I think it’s pretty obvious,” Wall said. “I don’t need to point it out. I think the way the league is going, you need athletic bigs, you need scoring off the bench, you need all of those types of things. We don’t really have an athletic big. I mean, Ian [Mahinmi] is older. March [Marcin Gortat] is older. They’re not athletic guys, but they do the little things that permit their game to help as much as possible.”
While Wall, and anyone else who has watched the Wizards play basketball the last few seasons, might think it’s obvious that Washington remains at a disadvantage until they catch up to today’s game, the one person in a position to fix this flawed franchise’s foundation has given fans little reason to believe he’s capable of accomplishing that mission.
Rather than stepping back and viewing the situation with a critical eye, Grunfeld seems much more content to blame injuries, bad luck, or the boogeyman for the Wizards’ continued shortcomings.
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“If you look at the overall picture of where we are, I think we’re in pretty healthy shape as far as our core is concerned,” Grunfeld said during the introductory press conference for first-round draft pick Troy Brown Jr. “Of course, we need some improvement from everybody but we have a solid, veteran team of young players that have been through it already. These are experienced young players that still have room for growth, but they’ve accomplished some things.
“They’ve been to the second round,” he continued. “They’ve been through wars. Last year, losing to Toronto—Otto [Porter Jr.] didn’t play in Game 6 and he played hurt the previous couple games, trying to do whatever he could and we had leads in the fourth quarter in three out of our four losses. A shot doesn’t go in and that’s basketball. But overall, the way it ended was disappointing for all of us because we expected more. And I think our players are going to use that as motivation and work hard this summer and come back again and give it another shot and see what we can do.”
That’s a lot to unpack. But the important thing to remember is that most of it is nonsense. Grunfeld essentially wants a participation trophy because his squad is really good at losing games they led in the fourth quarter. General managers in other NBA cities would be laughed out of town for saying that.
Over the last five seasons, the Wizards have averaged 44 wins per season—which is just one more victory than they earned this past season. Regardless of how many times Porter played at less than 100 percent or how often the Wiz failed to close out a winnable game, this is a large enough sample size to assess where the Wizards are.
The Wizards had the NBA’s fifth-highest payroll and paid the luxury tax for the first time in franchise history last season, but were still only the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. They have two franchise cornerstones (Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal) to build around, and three players on max contracts (Wall, Beal, and Porter).
With so much money tied up in the team’s top three players, there isn’t much room for errors with the rest of the available cap space. And yet, Grunfeld’s recent history shows he loves nothing more than overpaying mediocre role players–committing more than $34 million to Mahinmi, Gortat, and fellow non-athletic big man Jason Smith.
Grunfeld did pull off a surprising move last week, shipping Wall’s Polish frenemy, Gortat, to the Los Angeles Clippers for guard Austin Rivers. On the surface, this deal appears to be a solid move for the Wizards. Rivers is coming off of a career year, so it’s not surprising that the Clippers sold high on a player that struggled to stand out in their crowded backcourt rotation.
Given the choice between Rivers and Gortat, most objective observers would take the younger, more athletic player as well. Those same objective observers would also remain skeptical whenever Grunfeld begins making moves.
When a team hands out max contracts to good, but not great players and drastically overpays role players, that team needs to find a way to obtain talent via the draft and cost-effective free agents.
When it comes to the NBA Draft, Grunfeld appears to have two moves—trading away picks or drafting the same type of player over and over. He gave away first round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2017 for Gortat, forward Markieff Morris,and trade deadline rental Bojan Bogdanovic. During the seasons he actually kept his first rounder, Grunfeld ended up with Porter, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Brown, this year’s No. 15 overall pick.
All three are essentially small forwards who do a few different things well, but nothing great. None remotely resemble the athletic big man Wall dreams of at night. But when the only two options are to light the draft pick on fire or select yet another scrawny forward who has trouble scoring consistently, well, beggars can’t be choosers.
This has nothing to do with Brown and everything to do with the guy who drafted him. General managers who run successful franchises always have a plan. And a backup plan. And a contingency plan.
Grunfeld has no cap room, lots of big stiffs (which would be great if this was 1994), and very little support from fans.
The five longest-tenured active general managers or presidents in the NBA have won at least one championship since taking the reins of their respective teams. Well, except for one.
Grunfeld hasn’t come close to winning anything during his time in D.C. and has guided the franchise to a winning record in just seven of his 15 years in charge. As much as owner Ted Leonsis might not want to hear it, Grunfeld has shown nothing over the last decade and a half to suggest he warrants the stealthy extension he received last fall.
When things are going their way, the Wizards are good enough to stumble into the postseason before gracefully bowing out to the first competent opponent they face. It’s time for the local team to strive for something bigger.
Take, for example, the Toronto Raptors, the team that bested the Wizards in the first round of the playoffs. In the second round, the Cleveland LeBrons swept the Raptors in four games. Raptors coach Dwane Casey quickly lost his job because, after an honest assessment and some self-reflection, the team’s front office decided the team needed a radical turnaround.
In Toronto, simply making the postseason (and beating the Wizards) wasn’t good enough. Leonsis has shown he’s willing to make that same sort of tough choice with his golden child, the Washington Capitals. But so many disappointing things have happened to this once-proud Bullets franchise, that those who still love pro hoops in D.C. have nothing left to do but to close their eyes, cross their fingers, and pray that some sort of divine intervention comes at the 11th hour.