Fans at Verizon Center witnessed a barrage of sweet John Wall lobs and dishes, emphatic Jan Vesely jams and nifty post moves from Nene on Monday night as the Washington Wizards pummeled the historically awful Charlotte Bobcats, 101-73.
And as the feel-good home game of the season unfolded, the man responsible for bringing all of those players to Washington rested comfortably with the knowledge that he would be given the chance to continue building with them.
Ernie Grunfeld will return as president of the Wizards, according to two league officials who spoke on Monday on condition of anonymity.
Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis have tentatively agreed to a deal that is believed to be for more than one year and keeps the team’s architect in Washington contractually until at least the end of the 2013-14 season. Financial terms were not known, but Grunfeld’s present deal was set to expire at the end of this season.
He has been the Wizards’ chief decision-maker since the late Abe Pollin hired him to take over the franchise in June 2003. The team is expected to make an announcement as early as Tuesday, the officials said.
The Wizards (18-46) have been showing progress of late, as they won their fourth game in a row for the first time in four seasons. They also have claimed victories in six of their past eight games, including wins over playoff contenders Chicago, Miami and Orlando.
“I think we are buying into it, realizing what we need to do. Trying to see things change around here,” Wall said after scoring 16 points and getting 14 assists. “Beginning of the season, middle of the season, we was playing different ways and being selfish, but we cleared some things up, got different guys in, added some pieces and now we’re playing as a team. The best we’ve been all season.”
The timing has worked out perfectly for Grunfeld, who has dealt with rampant speculation that his job was in jeopardy after overseeing the worst four-year stretch, winning percentage wise, in franchise history (they have lost 224 of the past 308 games). But Leonsis weighed Grunfeld’s ability to accrue draft picks and salary-cap space — and move unwanted or expensive players — in his decision to retain Grunfeld, the officials said.
According to multiple league officials, Leonsis in recent weeks has refused to engage or correspond with agents representing prospective Wizards general managers interested in replacing Grunfeld. The team’s owner since the spring of 2010, Leonsis negotiated only with Grunfeld.
Grunfeld’s Wizards have posted a 282-438 record. The team reached the playoffs four times — but never won more than 45 games in a season — and advanced to the second round once, but also matched the worst 82-game season in franchise history, going 19-63 in 2008-09.
But since Leonsis has taken over, Grunfeld has led the rebuilding efforts around Wall, a No. 1 overall pick. In the past two seasons, Grunfeld has traded Gilbert Arenas and his exorbitant contract to Orlando; acquired Kirk Hinrich and Kevin Seraphin from Chicago and used Hinrich to acquire Jordan Crawford and Chris Singleton. This season, Grunfeld fired Flip Saunders after a 2-15 start and replaced him with Randy Wittman. He also dealt away former draft picks JaVale McGee and Nick Young to get proven veteran big man Nene from Denver.
Nene, who scored 18 points off the bench against Charlotte, has played just nine games since arriving at the trade deadline. The Wizards have gone 5-4 with Nene in uniform, failed to lose by more than four points in any defeat, and held double-digit leads in three of those losses. The Wizards held the Bobcats to just 73 points, the fewest points allowed in more than six years.
“I’m not the key,” Nene said, when asked if he was responsible for the improved play. “Who’s the door, if I’m the key?”
Leonsis’s decision to take back Nene’s contract — which has $52 million remaining after this season — was a possible hint that Grunfeld was going to be brought back. But Grunfeld’s position was probably strengthened nearly two weeks ago when he attended the NBA Board of Governors meeting in New York in place of Leonsis.
After taking a team photograph last week, Grunfeld huddled with Leonsis, sharing a discussion that carried the ease and comfort of a duo that has been working in unison.
Grunfeld’s track record under Leonsis has been far from perfect.
The Wizards have gone 41-105 in the past two seasons and Grunfeld’s most glaring mistake over the past two seasons was giving Andray Blatche a three-year extension worth $28 million to keep him in the fold through the 2014-15 season.
Blatche has foundered since signing the deal and Grunfeld tried unsuccessfully to move him at the trade deadline. Blatche stopped traveling with the team last month to deal with what the team stated were “conditioning” problems.
Vesely scored a career-high 16 points on 8-for-8 shooting against the Bobcats, but he and fellow rookies Singleton and Shelvin Mack have had minimal impact in their rookie seasons, despite plenty of opportunity to contribute.
Wittman has gone 16-31 since replacing Saunders and the Wizards are ensured another high draft pick this summer.
“Positive momentum to end the season is always encouraging,” veteran Maurice Evans said. “We finished strong last year, but we still had a core of guys that weren’t quite as committed as the group we have now. Wasn’t as mature. We had some guys who had contract disputes, Nick Young, just different agendas. Now we have a mature group of guys that’s really coming together and really playing well at the right time.”
Staff writer Mike Wise contributed to this report.