Ernie Grunfeld sees rewards for patience during Washington Wizards’ long rebuild

The move that signaled the Washington Wizards’ pivot from a bumbling, blooper-filled rebuild toward a team that could actually win came in March 2012, when team president Ernie Grunfeld acquired veteran Brazilian big man Nene from the Denver Nuggets in a three-team deal. Washington shipped out JaVale McGee and Nick Young in the process, moving away from two players whose progress had stagnated.

For Nene, the trade presented another challenge: leaving a seemingly stable franchise that had made eight straight playoff appearances to join another with a history of misery. After consulting with his pastor, Nene was convinced what appeared to be banishment might blossom into a blessing.

“My pastor told me, ‘Sometimes the little door is a big door and the big door is a little door,’ ” Nene said. “And that’s what happened. Denver was the big door that turn into little door, and Washington was the little door that turn into the big door.”

That door has opened wide in the two years since Nene arrived, with the Wizards in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time in nine years. Washington has already claimed its first second-round victory in 32 years and is tied with the top-seeded Indiana Pacers at one game apiece in the best-of-seven series. Three more wins and Washington would reach the conference finals for the first time in 35 years. Game 3 is Friday at Verizon Center.

Grunfeld, the architect behind two of the three Washington teams to win a playoff series since the 1970s, is beginning to earn some praise for taking a measured approach to constructing a team from the bottom.

Following a five-game demolition of the Chicago Bulls that featured Nene imposing his will in Game 1, Bradley Beal going on a one-man fourth-quarter rally in Game 2, Trevor Ariza going for six three-pointers in Game 4 and John Wall closing out the series in Game 5, Bulls all-star center Joakim Noah said: “They had no holes on that team.”

But the six-year gap between playoff appearances included a few notable draft mistakes (Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton), bloated contract extensions (Gilbert Arenas, Andray Blatche), an unforgettable locker room incident involving guns and a horrendous record (117-277) that made Grunfeld the primary target for fans’ frustration.

“We knew it was going to be a process. It wasn’t going to happen overnight,” Grunfeld said of his second rebuild in 11 years in Washington. Franchise owner Ted Leonsis and Grunfeld “spoke on it many times. He said all along, ‘We’re in this together.’ I think having an owner like Ted who was supportive and understood it was going to be a painful process because we’re all very competitive. We all want to win. When you start fresh and you start all over, there’s going to be some bumps in the road as you move forward. I don’t think we had doubts. We had a plan. We had to stick to the plan.”

The first steps

Leonsis, like his predecessor Abe Pollin, stayed committed to Grunfeld, who had already proved himself after producing playoff contenders in eight seasons in New York and four in Milwaukee. When Leonsis gave him a contract extension two years ago after a 20-46 season, Grunfeld was asked whether he deserved a new deal. He replied: “The important thing is Ted felt that.”

“We talked a lot as we entered the plan. And it was, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Do you know how hard this is? Do you know how difficult it is to build a team around young players?’ ” Leonsis said earlier this season. “And then he said, ‘Here’s how we’ll do it.’ Everything that he laid out for me has happened. So I appreciate that. But what I appreciated most was that he was able to execute quickly, ‘We’re going to blow the team up.’ That was really, really hard, and he was able to pull that off.”

Leonsis took over as owner in June 2010, a few weeks before the Wizards drafted Wall first overall and a few months after a dreadful season that finally led Grunfeld to scrap a roster that had plateaued and was kept together long past its expiration date. Stripping down and starting over was a different approach for Grunfeld, who was traditionally in a rush to succeed. With the Knicks, he had a centerpiece in Patrick Ewing; in Milwaukee, he had three solid scorers in Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell. In Washington, Grunfeld’s first big move was signing Arenas in 2003. A year later, Grunfeld traded for Antawn Jamison and oversaw four straight playoff appearances.

The Wizards’ hopes of ascending as a serious contender were derailed by Arenas's devastating knee injury and constant playoff run-ins with LeBron James. Grunfeld fired Eddie Jordan as coach, replacing him on an interim basis with Ed Tapscott until Flip Saunders was hired. Saunders never seemed to be the right fit for any combination of players Grunfeld gave him.

Coach Randy Wittman replaced Saunders, sliding over one seat from his position as top assistant, and had a less-than-stellar reputation after two failed stints as a head coach in Cleveland and Minnesota. But he brought a defensive philosophy that had been missing in the organization since Michael Jordan was in town.

“That was the first step. In this league, you’re going to have to win with defense and you have to have discipline, and I think Randy, from Day One, that’s what he started to preach,” Grunfeld said. “He treated everybody the same, but he was demanding. He's done a really good job of getting the players to buy in.”

Grunfeld also has aided Wittman by getting him veteran players with reputations as hardworking professionals. After getting Nene, Grunfeld traded Rashard Lewis’s expiring contract for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza and signed Martell Webster out of free agency. He thought those moves, along with drafting Beal third overall in 2012, would help the Wizards reach the playoffs last season — until Wall was forced to miss the first three months with a stress injury in his left knee.

“We all feel as a group that if John hadn’t missed 33 games last year, we would’ve had a good shot,” Grunfeld said.

Playoff roster takes shape

The encouraging 24-25 finish to last season after Wall returned convinced Leonsis the team was ready. He made a bold ultimatum to Grunfeld and Wittman that the team would have no excuses for missing the postseason again.

When doctors discovered a herniated disk in Okafor’s neck in September, Grunfeld moved swiftly to find a quality replacement. He did it a few days before the season by acquiring center Marcin Gortat in a trade with Phoenix for Okafor and a first-round draft pick.

Grunfeld then strengthened his roster in February by dealing two of his previous errors — Vesely and the free agent signing of Eric Maynor — to get Andre Miller and by signing veteran free agent Drew Gooden, who was without a team at the time.

Gortat and Ariza have been less heralded contributors to the Wizards’ success — with Wall, Beal and Nene garnering most of the attention — but both expect to cash in when they become unrestricted free agents in July. Grunfeld deflected a question about the team’s plans to bring back one or both, but the team would like to keep this group intact.

“We’ll deal with those issues. This is an important time for us. This is an important time for the players. Our total focus is on our opponent and trying to do the best job that we can,” Grunfeld said. “Those things are the last thing we’re thinking about right now. There are so many other things that are so much more important than that.”

Grunfeld repeated that answer when asked about his future as well as that of Wittman, whose contract also expires after the season.

Wittman praised Grunfeld and Leonsis for their patience, admitting he didn’t know whether the plan was coming together quickly enough.

“That’s the hardest thing because nobody likes losing,” Wittman said. “But if you’re going to reconstruct, it takes a little time. I had to be patient. Easy for me to say, ‘No, we need more veteran players now,’ but it takes patience from all sides.”

That includes the players. Wall and Trevor Booker, two of the team’s longest-tenured players, both said they had reservations about the slow-moving progress.

“I just wanted it to change in the snap of a finger, like if we started off losing 20 straight, I wanted to win the next 30. I wanted to win right away. I just waited, and I’m happy it’s coming now with this great group of guys,” said Wall, who signed a five-year, $80 million contract extension last summer. “People don’t understand it takes time. You’ve got to make cap space. You’ve got to draft the right people. You’ve got to have your young guys that you’re building around develop their games and see what pieces you can add.”

And when that little door becomes a big door, you have to be ready to step inside.

“We’re excited about what’s coming,” Grunfeld said.

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