Ernie Grunfeld sat in front of reporters, with a Wizards banner draped on the wall behind him, and explained the team’s plans in free agency, his expectations for the upcoming condensed season and how the young players on the roster have developed during a protracted offseason.
A few hundred feet away, in the bowels of the Verizon Center, Andray Blatche, Brendan Haywood, Roger Mason Jr., Roy Hibbert and other NBA players, were running sprints and shooting jumpers on a sleek, new practice court.
For the first time in five months, it felt like a normal Thursday at the arena, with team officials no longer banned from publicly discussing players and players finally granted access to the gym, locker room and training table.
“To be honest with you,” Blatche said, “I started to lose hope and I didn’t think there was going to be a season this year. Every time there was a negotiation, everything kept going wrong and things was getting canceled. So they surprised me when they said it was going to be a season. So now I’m excited and I can’t wait to get back.”
Players and owners reached a tentative settlement that nearly ended the lockout last Saturday and players have since dropped their antitrust lawsuit against the NBA.
Mason stopped his cohorts to sign petitions that would allow the players’ union to reconstitute and complete negotiations with the owners for a new collective bargaining agreement that would allow training camps to open on Dec. 9 and 66-game season to begin 16 days later.
Grunfeld said the Wizards would play two preseason games against the Philadelphia 76ers, with opener at home on Dec. 16 and the finale at Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 20. “The players were anxious to get things started. I was very anxious, our coaches were very anxious. But everything is going to be condensed,” Grunfeld said. “So you don’t get as much time out on the court. The coaches don’t have as much time with the players, and when you have a young group like we have, you want as much time as possible, but we have to make due with the time that we currently have.”
Grunfeld is contacting agents as he makes plans to retain restricted free agent Nick Young and fill out the remaining spots on the roster. A new amnesty clause in the next collective bargaining agreement allows teams to waive a player before any season. Though Lewis, 31, is slated to earn $46 million over the next two seasons — despite being two years removed from his last all-star appearance — his agent, Colin Bryant, said the Wizards informed him that “he is going to be a big part of their plans now and in the future.”
Grunfeld confirmed that they intend to keep Lewis. “We’re going to study the whole thing, but in all likelihood, we won’t amnesty anybody this year.”
The Wizards have seven players under contract – Lewis is the only one older than 26 – and three draft picks. Grunfeld said that cutting Lewis could create problems because it would force the team to sign players to reach the salary minimum of 85 percent of the cap, which is projected to be $58 million. He added, “You want to have flexibility if you can. When you look at the free agent list, it’s not a great free agent market and you don’t’ want to tie up too much money now.”
Grunfeld was general manager of the New York Knicks during the last lockout-shortened season in 1999 but was dismissed before the team advanced to the NBA Finals. He said a veteran team would probably be better suited to succeed in a truncated season, but Blatche disagreed.
“I think this should be easy for us, for the fact that we have a lot of young guys and it’s a shortened season,” Blatche said. “That gives us higher leverage with young players so we can come out and run all of the older guys. That’s a plus side for us. That’s definitely advantage for us. Youth is always an advantage, you know.
“We have high expectation of making the playoffs,” he said. “It’s something that we want to do.”
Though signs are pointing toward a positive resolution in the next week or so, there were also reminders on Thursday that the lockout hasn’t been fully lifted. Huge team logos still occupy the spots where photos of Wizards players once hung, and coaches and executives are still prohibited from communicating with players. Hibbert, the former Georgetown star and Indiana Pacers center, spotted Wizards Coach Flip Saunders walking down a hallway and shouted, “What’s up, Coach!”
Saunders looked back, saw that it was an NBA player speaking to him, and discretely waved before quickly scurrying away.