Ernie Grunfeld looking at the ‘big picture’

December 6, 2012

His cornerstone point guard is still shooting standstill shots with a compression sleeve on his left knee, return date unknown.

His cornerstone big man has been coming off the bench for two weeks, using his return as a training camp to regain rhythm after missing three months with an injured left foot.

His restructured team lost its first 12 games, the worst start in franchise history, and is now a league-worst 2-13, the same record as last season.

It’s safe to say that this season hasn’t exactly gone as Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld expected.

“We’d like to have more wins at this time, but we have to look at the big picture and see where we are,” Grunfeld said.“The players compete on a nightly basis and that’s what we wanted and they’ve faced adversity and they’ve responded. Down the road, this is going to help them. But going through the process is not easy for anybody.”

Since reaching the playoffs four straight seasons from 2005 to ’08, the Wizards have posted the NBA’s worst record, going 90-237 (.275). They are just 45-118 since Ted Leonsis became primary owner in June 2010 and are gaining little traction locally, ranking 21st in the league in attendance (15,538) as area sports fans divert their attention to Robert Griffin III and the Nationals.

This wasn’t necessarily going to be the season that the Wizards became a contender, but Grunfeld had hoped the team would start turning the corner toward respectability. Leonsis stated during training camp — when the team realized that it would start the year without John Wall and Nene — that another finish among the worst three teams would be “unacceptable.”

“We said we’d like to put ourselves in position to compete for a playoff-type of situation. Who’s to know how the season would start from an injury standpoint?” Grunfeld said. “It has taken time and things that we can’t control have played a part in it. Obviously, everything that we’ve tried to do was built around John and Nene and fitting pieces around them, for now and for the future.”

When Grunfeld built the team last summer, he envisioned having Wall getting the team out on the break with his blazing speed, Nene in the low block drawing double teams and a collection of shooters and athletic wings as a complement, forming an entertaining, breakneck offense.

Wall was sidelined before training camp with a stress injury in his left knee. The Wizards announced that the injury — diagnosed by New York orthopedic specialist David Altchek — was expected to keep him out for eight weeks, but 10 weeks later, Wall has yet to practice, run or shoot a jumper.

Team insiders have projected that Wall could possibly come back around Christmas, but Grunfeld doesn’t want to get involved with a guessing game.

“It’s not an exact science,” Grunfeld said of Wall’s timetable. “He’s working hard and doing what the medical people are asking him to do. We’re going to be cautious with him and when the doctors tell us that he’s able to go, then he’ll be out there.”

The offense ranks as the worst in the NBA and several players have suffered in the absence of Wall — such as second-year forward Jan Vesely, rookie Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza, who will miss a few weeks after sustaining a strained left calf in the Wizards’ upset Tuesday of the defending champion Heat.

A.J. Price was signed to spell Wall, but has been asked to play more than 26 minutes a game after getting limited action the past three seasons in Indiana. Jordan Crawford is the only player other than Wall who can create his own shot off the dribble, and he has been a primary facilitator.

Grunfeld was asked if there is too much pressure on Wall to save the team whenever he returns.

“I think John has great pride,” he said. “When he comes back, obviously, he’s going to make it easier for his teammates. It’s frustrating for him, because he’s such a competitor.”

Nene has played in just five games as he recovers from plantar fasciitis in his left foot but Grunfeld points out that with the Brazilian big man playing limited minutes, the Wizards have won two of those games. They lost in overtime in the other two, including his debut in Atlanta, where the Wizards will have a chance on Friday to avenge one of the toughest losses of the season.

“Having Nene back, obviously, has helped, with his experience and his confidence,” Grunfeld said.

“We have all new players. We’ve completely turned the roster around,” Grunfeld said. “We want to see what our young players can do. We have some veteran players that can bridge the gap for us and set a good example. I think our culture is a lot different than it used to be.”

The Wizards have already made one roster move — replacing Jannero Pargo with Shaun Livingston — because of the slow start, and Grunfeld suggested that he would have to consider more changes if the team continues to struggle.

“You always look for opportunities. This is the NBA. There are ways that you can improve a team,” he said.

Grunfeld hasn’t been pleased with the results but has taken note of some positive developments: The Wizards have had 10 games decided by seven games or fewer, including three that went beyond regulation. They have also improved defensively, ranking 16th in points allowed (97.9), and are one of the league’s better rebounding teams, ranking 10th at 43.2 per game.

He also credited Coach Randy Wittman for keeping the players upbeat under some difficult circumstances.

“Randy has got these guys playing hard and competing on a nightly basis,” he said. “I think the character of our players is showing.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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