Ernie Grunfeld is still running the Washington Wizards, and might not be going anywhere

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the Wizards can keep playing above-.500 basketball without Nene. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Mike Wise
Columnist March 6

Among the barbershop banter going around Verizon Center’s media room Wednesday night was the topic of which Washington Wizards small forward had to go in the offseason to avert a talent-and-minutes logjam: Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster or Otto Porter Jr.?

By the time arguments were made on each player’s behalf (given his age and upside, everyone agreed moving Porter after his rookie year would be downright foolish), it dawned on the half-dozen or so of us: We were talking about players who might have to leave Washington because of too much depth at their position. No one could remember such a discussion about a Wizards roster this decade.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

This was when I realized Ernie Grunfeld had definitely saved his job.

On a playoff-or-bust edict from his owner since training camp, out of injury alibis and facing the prospect of no postseason for a sixth straight spring, the oft-slammed team president launched a deep three-pointer in late October.

Grunfeld acquired a journeyman center from Phoenix and some loose change for an injured Emeka Okafor and a protected first-round draft pick.

The Post Sports Live crew look at whether the Wizards can make a playoff run without Nene in the lineup for the next six weeks. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

That player, Marcin Gortat, has started 60 of 61 games this season.

Gortat has double figures in points and rebounds in 24 of those games.

He has bailed out his team down low, especially now that his bookend 6-foot-11 big man, Nene, is out for at least another month because of a sprained knee ligament. When Nene is healthy, the two play off each other brilliantly; the more Gortat bangs inside on offense, the more Nene can do his ballet outside the key.

April 5 will be Polish Night at Verizon Center, and the Polish ambassador to the United States confirmed to me Wednesday that Gortat is bringing in 12 cheerleaders from Polska specifically for the event.

Heck, Gortat even tossed up his own desperation three-pointer this season.

Like Grunfeld’s, it went swish.

Okafor, still rehabbing, has yet to play a game.

“With March and Nene, we can match up with anybody inside,” Grunfeld said at halftime of a victory over the Jazz on Wednesday night as he leaned against a wall in the club suite where he watches games.

“It was big at that time we made the trade because we knew Emeka was hurt. To bring in a big guy who plays both offense and defense and has a very positive attitude, we were very happy.”

Ernie won’t talk about his future, pleading that I write about something else. Ted Leonsis won’t talk about Ernie’s future, just as he won’t talk about George McPhee’s future with the Capitals. All Monumental Sports business apparently will be handled this summer.

But while McPhee may need a Stanley Cup playoff run of at least two or more rounds to warrant an extension, the signs of Grunfeld being re-signed are growing daily.

ESPN has calculated the odds of Washington returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 as 100 percent (since Golden State and Portland don’t yet have that designation, it apparently does help to play in the Eastern Conference).

I’ll admit it: I thought Ernie was finally toast. Though I’ve consistently defended him on essentially the same grounds Leonsis has used — Grunfeld is executing the gradual rebuilding plan his employer instructed him to — I wasn’t sure he could recover from re-signing Gilbert Arenas and Andray Blatche to a combined $146 million in 2008 and 2010.

But the recycling king did it, turning Arenas into Rashard Lewis, then into Okafor and Ariza (a trade widely criticized as the Wizards taking on two aging role players for too many guaranteed years and millions) and finally Okafor into Gortat.

This is a very good core group, with its two best players 20 and 23 years old, respectively. The Wizards have put themselves in position salary-cap wise to spend in free agency the next two seasons.

As time has gone on, the bigger picture of Grunfeld’s vision is beginning to emerge. Taking on Nene’s $65 million deal or the remaining $15 million of Ariza’s deal appeared risky, if not foolish, in 2012. But without those pieces and Gortat surrounding John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards aren’t three games over .500 for the first time since the Arenas era and less than two months from possibly their first playoff series win since 2005.

With Joe Dumars reportedly on his way out in Detroit, Grunfeld would have the fifth-longest tenure among NBA GMs behind Miami’s Pat Riley, the Lakers’ Mitch Kupchak, San Antonio’s R.C. Buford and Boston’s Danny Ainge.

Yes, Grunfeld’s the only one on that list without an NBA title. He’s also the only one who was expressly told to do it on the cheap for a few years.

He doesn’t get a pass for drafting Jan Vesely at No. 6 or Oleksiy Pecherov at No. 18. He’s also not the only NBA executive who didn’t take Stephen Curry before No. 7 or DeJuan Blair before No. 37 in 2009.

Here’s hoping those in the Why-Isn’t-Grunfeld-Gone? mob can lower their pitchforks and finally notice the team in front of them.

Last month in Sochi, Russia, I ran into a former acquaintance of mine and Grunfeld’s who, within minutes, wanted to know, “How does Ernie still have a job?” I’ve heard this often the past few years, often from people looking for work themselves.

Now that the Wall era is within weeks of its first postseason, the answer is easy: Ernie Grunfeld and his closest advisers were given just the right amount of time they needed to fix what was broke.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

More on the Wizards:

Wizards Insider: Gooden ends lengthy scoring drought

DC Sports Bog: Andre Miller is all tied up

Wizards Insider: Ariza scorching from long range

DC Sports Bog: Much to cheer at Verizon Center

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