Ernie Grunfeld faces pivotal season as Wizards GM

Jason Reid
Columnist December 8, 2011

Listen to Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld long enough, and you get the sense he’s genuinely excited about this season’s team. He’s not just offering some company line. Grunfeld actually believes the Wizards are improving.

And that’s good for Grunfeld, who is in the final season of his contract, because his job could hang in the balance.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

The head of Washington’s basketball operations since 2003, Grunfeld needs to be correct about the group he assembled. This is just the second season of Washington’s latest rebuilding project, but Wizards players still must display progress in their roles for Grunfeld to deserve to remain in his. Grunfeld must provide owner Ted Leonsis with strong evidence the Wizards are pointed in the right direction — or Leonsis should find someone else to take the wheel.

Eight months ago, I wrote that Grunfeld deserved to continue in his position. Despite the Wizards’ last-place finish in the Southeast Division and the franchise’s overall lack of success during his first eight seasons (Washington missed the playoffs four times), Grunfeld made enough good moves last season, in my view, to remain in control. Obviously, Leonsis felt the same way.

Now, it gets tougher for Grunfeld, who should receive a contract extension only if the Wizards take the positive steps he’s convinced they can.

Washington begins training camp Friday at Verizon Center, and “we are gonna win more games than we did last year,” Grunfeld said during a phone interview Wednesday. “We’re all expecting to see progress.”

In a bottom-line business, a team’s win-loss record is its barometer of success.

But I don’t share Grunfeld’s optimism. And as for the Wizards’ talk about making the playoffs during the lockout-truncated 66-game season, that’s not happening.

Playing 82 games in 2010-11, the Wizards went 23-59. Looking at their projected starting lineup and rotation, I don’t see how they produce more victories during a brutal, jam-packed schedule.

And playoffs? Playoffs? The Wizards aren’t close to cracking the Eastern Conference’s top eight.

Instead of evaluating Grunfeld on whether the Wizards experience a big bump in victories or earn a highly unlikely playoff berth, Leonsis should judge him, in large part, on the on-and-off-court development of two key Grunfeld guys: power forward Andray Blatche and center JaVale McGee.

Has Blatche finally grown up? Is McGee ready to end the silliness?

There is no bigger test for Grunfeld than Blatche. Grunfeld has supported Blatche and rewarded him with two contract extensions despite a series of knuckleheaded moves and questionable actions that repeatedly have embarrassed the franchise.

When Grunfeld looks at Blatche, he sees a skilled, cost-effective post player with enormous scoring and rebounding potential. If Blatche could just mature a little, Grunfeld often tells himself, he could be a cornerstone piece of the turnaround Leonsis expects.

Despite Blatche’s cap-friendly contract and ability, Grunfeld should have removed him from the roster because teams can’t win with guys who simply don’t get it. Instead, Grunfeld has waited and hoped.

It’s time for Blatche to reward his protector. In showing that he finally has a clue, Blatche would do a lot to prove Grunfeld has one, too.

“Andray played with a lot of injuries [last season], but he still put up nice numbers,” Grunfeld said. “And when he was in there, we were still a pretty effective team, especially in that 10-, 12-game stretch at the end of the season.

“He did some good things when he really came back healthy. But, yeah, we expect progress from him. We think . . . I know he’s gonna have a good season. I know he’s gonna have a better season than he’s had in the past.”

Getting more from McGee also would reflect well on Grunfeld.

Without a doubt, the young 7-footer possesses talent. Last season McGee finished second in the league in blocked shots. He’s certainly capable of putting on a show.

That’s also McGee’s problem. Too often, the “show” seemed more important to him. The Wizards don’t need McGee to display his dribbling ability or shot creativity far from the basket.

They need him to maximize his ability in the post. It’s not about style points.

“We’ll be real satisfied if JaVale shows as much improvement from last year to this year as he did from the previous year to last year,” Grunfeld said. “People sometimes forget that JaVale is only 23.

“He’s the No. 2 shot-blocker in the league. He averaged eight rebounds a game, and he did show improvement. Did he make some mistakes? Of course, he did. He did just like any young player. But we think JaVale has made good progress and we expect more progress this year.”

Wisely, Grunfeld is building around impressive second-year point guard John Wall. Grunfeld made a nice move in acquiring guard Jordan Crawford and has done a good job reworking Washington’s salary cap.

“We have a lot of flexibility,” he said. “We can use that cap room either this summer, next summer or the following summer.”

Grunfeld is looking toward the future. He envisions a bright one for the Wizards. This season should determine how much longer he should remain part of it.

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