Wizards Coach Flip Saunders fired: Ernie Grunfeld needs to go next

Jason Reid
Columnist January 24, 2012

Presumably, Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis is only getting started. And if so, he’ll soon announce even bigger, needed changes. Although Tuesday’s firing of beleaguered coach Flip Saunders was inevitable, Leonsis clearly left the job half-done.

He took the easy route in choosing to treat a symptom of Washington’s sickness rather than targeting its cause. Leonsis’s approval of the decision to make Saunders the fall guy for yet another embarrassing Wizards season (is there any other kind?) prompts an obvious question: So when does team President Ernie Grunfeld get the boot?

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Once Leonsis accepted that his house was in disrepair, which has been painfully obvious for weeks, replacing the architect should have been his opening act. Leonsis needed to begin with the person most responsible for the franchise’s long-running ineptitude: Grunfeld, the head of Washington’s basketball operation since 2003, whose contract expires after this season.

Through a team spokesman, Leonsis declined an interview request after Tuesday’s news conference at Verizon Center to introduce former assistant Randy Wittman, who has the job for the remainder of the season. No matter. There’s little Leonsis could have said to justify the weak move.

“This is a black mark on all of us,” Wittman said.

Excising Saunders from the Wizards’ dysfunctional situation is like arresting a lowly accomplice while permitting the mastermind to go free. First and foremost, this is Grunfeld’s mess, and so far, Leonsis has let him off the hook.

Even for a team in the second season of a rebuilding project, the Wizards are horrid. After watching Washington’s dispirited performance during Monday’s 103-83 blowout loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, I figured Leonsis would have to do something soon.

Remember: This was all expected, according to Leonsis. The plan was unfolding as envisioned — that was Ted’s take.

It’s fine to stay on message about your “plan.” Marketing slogans about “New Traditions” have their place. When teams exhibit little effort, as the Wizards did while going through the motions on the road and dropping to 2-15, the person ultimately in charge actually has to lead.

After Washington’s awful performance the past two seasons, and Grunfeld’s poor judgment while enabling the Wizards’ high-profile knuckleheads through the years, Leonsis needs to initiate an organizational purge. So far, he has ignored the biggest problem.

The Wizards coddle their players, offering excuses for their missteps. Each time the Wizards fire a coach, they validate their players’ repeated acts of ignorance.

Why should Andray Blatche attempt to do better when he plays in an organization that apparently places little value on accountability? How is JaVale McGee expected to learn the right way when, eight days after Saunders took issue with his showboat dunk, the coach is the one taking the blame for this disaster of a season?

Is it any wonder the players had tuned out Saunders? And when Saunders gets fired just 15 days after management declared his job safe, is it any wonder they don’t take anything seriously?

With Wittman now leading the team, the Wizards have had four coaches since the 2008-09 season. During that span, they have a record of 70-193. Before he joined the Wizards, Saunders was a successful NBA coach with a good reputation. His teams won at least 50 games in seven seasons.

So perhaps instead of rotating through coaches, the Wizards need to look at the constants: poorly constructed rosters and warped organizational culture, which all begins with Grunfeld.

During Tuesday’s news conference, Grunfeld passed on the opportunity to step up. He should have shouldered responsibility for assembling another awful roster. He could have apologized for giving Blatche a five-year, $35-million extension.

Instead, he abdicated responsibility for what has befallen an organization he has led for nearly a decade.

“We had issues that happened to us that really were out of anybody’s hands the last two, three years,” he said, “and then we had to go in a different direction.”

Grunfeld shouldn’t be blamed for Gilbert Arenas’s incomprehensible decision to bring guns into the locker room. Grunfeld, however, has to be held accountable for an environment in which the immature guard felt empowered to do as he pleased. And when it comes to the organization’s overall lack of discipline, Grunfeld should raise his hand on that one, too.

The Wizards believe their record should be better. They’re hoping Wittman provides a spark. Maybe he will. Even if he does, though, it won’t be enough to overcome Washington’s talent deficiencies and having too many guys with no concept of what it takes to play winning basketball.

Saunders simply had no idea what he was getting into with the Wizards. It wasn’t just that Arenas was an unpredictable loon. The team chemistry was awful, people familiar with the situation say, because of the Arenas-Caron Butler situation, and all the bad habits young players had learned.

Exactly how was Saunders supposed to develop basically an entire roster when many players figured they could ignore him without repercussions?

Saunders didn’t sign Blatche to a deal that basically made him untradable. Saunders didn’t commit the organization to developing McGee, who doesn’t realize it’s a bad idea to go for a look-at-me dunk with the Wizards trailing in another eventual loss?

“We have to continue to work with them,” Grunfeld said of the team’s players in general. “We have to be patient with them. And we have to grow together with them.”

The time for patience is over. A new direction is needed. Go ahead, Ted: Finish the job.

reidj@washpost.com

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