Ernie Grunfeld’s plan for Wizards is working, though many around NBA didn’t see it

Mike Wise
Columnist May 6

Now that a certain Washington franchise is three wins from its first Eastern Conference finals appearance in 35 years, it’s easy to gloat, to say, “I told you so,” and go after the vermin who never thought the Wizards’ ownership, management and players would amount to anything.

Let’s settle all family business today anyway.

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

If you were the clown who wrote, “Seriously, can anyone explain why this guy is still running a basketball team?”after Ernie Grunfeld moved Rashard Lewis’s $100 million deal and a second-round pick to New Orleans in 2012 for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, please, stand up and take your medicine.

Hello, John Hollinger, then of ESPN.com and now a Memphis Grizzlies employee, who also killed Ernie when his best players were injured, because every team architect should build a team that can withstand a star player going down.

How’d that work out for Memphis when Marc Gasol got hurt this year, Johnny?

The Post Sports Live crew looks at the Wizards' victory over the Pacers in Game 1 of the NBA playoffs second round and debates whether Washington can win the series. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

If you were among John Wall’s staunchest critics, was convinced the notion of any franchise building around the all-star point guard was a terribly misguided one, it’s also time for your smackdown.

“I don’t think he’s good enough that you can build a franchise around him,” Stan Van Gundy said in early 2013. (To Stan’s credit, he has changed his mind.)

If you ever wrote about a player’s decision to adorn his physique with body art as a contributing factor of why he should not sign a max deal, it is time to get a “John Wall Can Ball” tattoo on your right pectoral muscle. (Holla, J. Reid!)

If you believed reports that Oklahoma City offered James Harden for Bradley Beal and Chris Singleton — and that in rejecting that offer Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis looked plain cheap and blind when it comes to building a team — it is time to understand that considerably more than half of NBA general managers would take Beal over Harden right now in a heartbeat.

For you who believed otherwise, it is time to feel the backhand of Nene.

“I’m the kind of person who thinks before saying something,” said the Brazilian power forward, whose acquisition in a three-team trade that included JaVale McGee and Nick Young was pilloried in many corners as being a bad contract. “Like the Bible says, the stupid guys be smart when they shut their mouth at the right time.”

That’s exactly how the King James version reads, Nene.

Anyhow, look, we were all guilty of knowing the Wizards were headed for dread at some point. Big voices, small voices, we all had reasonable arguments for our doubt.

In an October 2012 podcast, Bill Simmons pilloried the Ariza-Okafor trade, which essentially ended up becoming Ariza and Marcin Gortat — only the best acquisitions Grunfeld has made in Washington and why the Wizards now have enough around Wall to make noise in May.

David Falk has taken a lot of grief for incinerating Wall’s ability more than a year ago, but lost in Michael Jordan’s former agent’s takedown of the face of the franchise was this gem on Okafor and Ariza:

“You paid about $29 million for them when [you] could have had Elton Brand for $2.1 million after he was amnestied? Would you rather have a Mercedes for $20,000, or a broken-down Chevy and broken-down Yugo for $250,000?”

I have to think the Trevor Ariza who rained six three-pointers on the Pacers’ heads Monday night in Game 1 of their semifinal series feels healthier than a broken-down Yugo right now.

If you are so bitter about the Wizards’ success in the wake of your criticism that you need to forecast doom as they try to keep both Gortat and Ariza from leaving via free agency, well, you’re probably a seamhead and shouldn’t be talking or writing about the NBA for a living.

Either way, you need to feel the wrath of the Polish Machine upside your head.

“The dumb people who have no freakin’ clue about basketball, these guys don’t have influence on your life and your career, so I don’t worry about them,” Gortat said. “I don’t want any apologies.”

I asked a bunch of the Wizards this afternoon before their off-day practice whether they felt the criticism of the players and their franchise actually helped. Surprisingly, many said yes.

“You can’t live life without having haters. It makes it more fun,” Wall said, adding that he took some of Falk’s criticism to heart and doesn’t see any reason to rub his success in his detractors’ faces. “That motivated me. If I see him at a game, I’m going to speak to him. It helped make me better. I’m serious.”

So, by deduction, shouldn’t the harshest critics be partly responsible for their play this postseason? That one turned out to be a reach.

“Definitely not,” Gortat said. “They should get credit for being dumb, stupid — that’s what they should get credit for, being weak.”

Okay then.

We can dissect every trade, draft and signing and argue about how the Wizards went from the bottom of the NBA to the East semis. Here’s what we can’t argue: They have a nice team at the moment.

If Grunfeld is going to continue to be eviscerated for Jan Vesely at No. 6, which I regrettably congratulated the Wizards for via a draft-night tweet, he should also get credit for knowing what he was doing to build this roster in other ways.

However much the loyalists suffered, Leonsis understood the logic behind being really bad before being really good better than most of us. And he was patient enough to see it through before jumping at a potential offer for Harden, even though it might have been a no-brainer at that time.

The plan is working, people. It’s not been completed, nor is it foolproof from a bout of plantar fasciitis down the road. But to hold onto the animosity over bad deals of yore serves no purpose now that the Wizards are winning and advancing.

The problem with I-told-you-so columns, of course, is you eventually have to do your own mea culpa.

Fifteen years ago I went after Grunfeld in New York for trading John Starks and Charles Oakley for Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby, two heart-and-soul vets for what appeared to be athletic young knuckleheads.

Sprewell and Camby ended up being part of the first and only No. 8 seed in NBA history to reach the NBA Finals, months after the man who built the team was fired before his vision came to fruition.

Ernie knew how to build championship contenders then and he knows how now.

You want to dwell on Oleksiy Pecherov at No. 18 forever, that’s on you.

Personally, I’ve found holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to get sick.

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

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