Ernie Grunfeld, Wizards need to stick together

Mike Wise
Columnist April 23, 2012

If the mandate from the boss was to go young, collect draft picks like baseball cards, save money for a sunny day and not worry about competing for a playoff spot in the foreseeable future — be real bad before good, in essence — then Ernie Grunfeld has done his job and deserves to return as the team president of the Washington Wizards.

Before we get to the news, the fed-up and furious are allowed to vent. Take five seconds, in fact. Moan at the moon about Ernie. Call for the architect of the worst four-year, won-loss stretch in Wizards franchise history to be banished forever by the owner, whom some might call too patient Ted.

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

Get it out. Make it cathartic. Done? Good. Now accept reality:

Grunfeld, judged strictly by what he has done to execute owner Ted Leonsis’s plan the past two years — and not what he did or didn’t do in his six years under Abe Pollin — isn’t going anywhere.

Hoping for better times ahead, Grunfeld announced his return as team president in a news conference Tuesday afternoon at Verizon Center. For better or for more ping-pong balls, Ernie’s back. Deal with it.

If that doesn’t make sense, well, it’s time to take a serious look at what Grunfeld has done since Leonsis took over rather than get caught up in How-Can-Ernie-Possibly-Be-Back? rhetoric.

Grunfeld has made a total of eight deals since Leonsis became majority owner in the spring of 2010. John Wall was a no-brainer as the No. 1 draft pick, but remember that two second-round picks were also dealt away that day for draft rights that amounted to Trevor Booker.

Later that summer Grunfeld got money to take Kirk Hinrich off Chicago’s hands and ended up with the draft rights to Kevin Seraphin in exchange for the rights to Vladimir Veremeenko, who has yet to play an NBA game. Serpahin, meanwhile, has shown he can be a bona fide presence in the paint.

He cut bait on Gilbert Arenas the following December, swapping lemon, $100 million-plus contracts with Orlando for Rashard Lewis. It saved the Wizards roughly $30 million.

In February of last year, he essentially turned Hinrich into Jordan Crawford, Maurice Evans and a 2011 draft pick that became Chris Singleton, who like Seraphin is another big-body, role-playing building block.

Lost in that deal were major cash savings. Perhaps the happiest day of last season for Leonsis was stroking a check to Mike Bibby for more than $1 million, because that fee bought out the $6 million he would have been owed had he stuck around.

On draft day this year, Grunfeld used the sixth pick on Jan Vesely, the 18th pick on Singleton and the 34th pick on Shelvin Mack, who have shown during the second half of this season they can be complementary players.

His one monster trade this season involved the acquisition of Nene, the proven Brazilian center of the Denver Nuggets, and the jettisoning of two kids who never grew up, JaVale McGee and Nick Young. It’s a huge gamble based solely on whether Nene, the most sought after free agent big man in the NBA last summer, can be a healthy and hungry franchise center the next five years. But given that McGee was clearly not that guy, it’s addition by subtraction.

Grunfeld still has to pay the piper for Andray Blatche. He should never have signed him to a deal in the fall of 2010 that has $23 million left on it after this season. But monetarily, that’s not as egregious a sin as it looks; in fact, that’s cheaper than Arenas’s last year that was lopped off in the Lewis deal.

The ledger: Take away ’Dray and Grunfeld has completely rebuilt the roster in two years. In that same time, he has acquired six first-round draft picks and potential cornerstones at the two most important positions on the roster — Wall at point guard and Nene at center.

If you are Leonsis and getting under the salary cap and not hemorrhaging money were two of the goals, here’s Grunfeld’s best asset: He’s taken out the trash well and recycled better. The Wizards have a high lottery pick and two second-round picks in the upcoming draft. He’s positioned the team with salary cap flexibility moving forward.

If we’re going to say Grunfeld presided over a lousy four years, we also need to take into account everything he has done post-Michael Jordan in Washington.

For every time someone says, “But he signed Gilbert for $100 million without ensuring his knee was good,” we also have to say, “He got Gilbert for $60 million at a time when no one saw him leaving Golden State.”

If we’re going to say Washington is a woebegone NBA outpost now, we have to say the Wizards’ four-year playoff run from 2005 to 2008 was the first time in two decades that happened.

If Ernie gets blame for 2009-12, he also accepts credit for presiding over those four years. If he gets some blame for the petulence and career nosedive of Arenas and the passion-less nights of Blatche, he also gets credit for turning Kwame Brown into Caron Butler.

When the Wizards actually spend big money in the offseason and the mandate is to be a perennial playoff team, that’s when Grunfeld should be properly judged.

Until then, disenchanted fans target their ire toward Leonsis’s long-term strategy and whether it’s going to pay dividends. Moan at the moon; Ernie was just doing Ted’s bidding. That’s why he’s staying.

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
mikewise.

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