In trading center JaVale McGee and guard Nick Young last week, Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld got it right. After making excuses for McGee and Young, Grunfeld finally acknowledged neither player should be part of the struggling franchise’s future.
Regardless of how the players the club received in the three-team deal — veteran starting center Nene, journeyman forward Brian Cook and a second-round draft pick in 2015 — fare, Washington will be better off without two players who lacked basketball smarts and displayed little interest in team goals. It’s a case of addition by subtraction. Unfortunately for Grunfeld, it should have happened sooner.
People who lead franchises are evaluated on their decision-making, and Grunfeld’s best decisions lately have occurred in fixing mistakes of his own making. With the Wizards on track for their fourth consecutive appearance in the NBA draft lottery, the person who put them in this position should no longer be allowed to lead their efforts to get them out of it.
The culture change Grunfeld appeared to initiate in dumping McGee and Young also shouldn’t end with unloading a couple of more-aggravation-than-they’re-worth blockheads. The exercise in reduction ought to continue all the way to the top, until someone new is occupying the team president’s office at Verizon Center.
The league’s best executives understand there’s a lot more to building successful teams than simply selecting players based on “measurables” such as height, weight and athletic ability. They realize that statistical production tells only part of the story. It’s not simply about having the most talented people in the locker room; it’s about having the right ones, too.
For most of his nine seasons in Washington, Grunfeld has demonstrated little interest in the importance of team chemistry, assembling some of the NBA’s most dysfunctional rosters.
Over the years, the Wizards have become a national punch line because of their players’ incomprehensibly poor judgment.
Somehow, McGee recently forgot that the Wizards were on offense and left his teammates at the opposing hoop to run back on defense. Young once launched a desperation shot several feet behind the three-point arc as time expired in the first half because he couldn’t remember the play that was called in the huddle.
Sure, anyone could make a mistake. McGee and Young, however, made too many big ones to remain in prominent roles with the Wizards as long as they did.
Nene, who’s from Brazil, has been a steady performer on the court. While with the Denver Nuggets, Nene participated in the playoffs seven times, scoring key points, grabbing important rebounds and making clutch defensive plays that often provided the difference in victories during the NBA’s most important time of the year.
The Wizards can count on Nene to set a positive example. The team’s inexperienced players have the opportunity to learn from someone who displayed his mettle in resuming his career at a high level after suffering torn knee ligaments and missing all but one game during the 2005-06 season.
Nene has struggled because of calf injuries this season, which is somewhat concerning, considering he’s in the first season of a five-year, $67 million contract extension, which the Wizards are on the hook for now. There are rumblings throughout the league that Denver, after experiencing buyer’s remorse, was eager to move him.
Nene is an upgrade for the Wizards, despite the questions marks with his calf problems and big price tag, because they were in such a bad place with McGee.
Presumably, Nene has no interest in attempting look-at-me dunks or making misguided attempts to pad his statistics in losses. That’s the embarrassing stuff McGee seemed to care about most.
With a career scoring average of 5.6 points, Cook doesn’t figure to contribute much. He’s a three-point specialist who hasn’t been very good at making three-pointers this season.
Even if Cook plays sparingly as expected, though, he’ll probably match Young’s rebounding production. While with the Wizards, the 6-foot-7 Young averaged only 1.9 rebounds per game. It would seem difficult for someone of that height to rebound so poorly. Still, Young made it happen.
Cook also has a solid track record of remembering instructions — at least long enough to transfer a play-call from sideline huddle to the floor.
Perhaps something will click for McGee and Young now that they’re former Wizards. Maybe they’ll grow up, gain wisdom and have great careers. If it happens, great for them, but it wasn’t going to happen in Washington, not in the Wizards’ culture of perpetual losing.
Wizards officials say Grunfeld deserves praise for making a trade that strengthened the team. He got something for McGee, a restricted free agent after the season, and Young, who will be unrestricted, and initiated a needed culture change by removing blockheads from their program.
Of course, Grunfeld drafted both players and coddled them for years, repeatedly making excuses for their missteps. “They’re young players,” he would often say.
There’s a big difference between being young and being immature and unprofessional. Grunfeld never seemed to make the distinction when commenting about McGee, Young and forward Andray Blatche, who the team unsuccessfully tried to trade for his repeated dunderheaded acts.
In the offseason, the Wizards likely will release Blatche and swallow the $23 million he’s still owed for the chance to use the league’s amnesty provision and remove his contract from the salary cap.
The decision to reward Blatche with a $28 million extension was all on Grunfeld, who chose not to take similar silly risks with McGee and Young. That’s great. He learned something after being burned, turning yet another season to toast.
And for his own failings, Grunfeld has used coaches as his fall guys.
Since the start of the 2008-09 season, Washington has had four coaches. In January, Grunfeld fired Flip Saunders after a 2-15 start. Under Randy Wittman, Saunders’s former lead assistant, Washington is 8-19. At 10-34 combined, the Wizards have the second-worst record in the NBA.
Washington’s lack of significant progress since the coaching change indicates the decision to fire Saunders was short-sighted. How could Saunders have been Washington’s biggest problem when, less the two months later, Grunfeld traded two of the players he had touted as being integral to the Wizards’ rebuilding process?
Grunfeld picks the players, which is the Wizards’ most important job, and the franchise needed him to make the McGee-Young trade. He just shouldn’t be allowed to make anymore.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/reid.