By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Ernie Grunfeld's plan was to sprinkle talented youngsters and veteran role players around a core of three star players. Then he would watch the team progress deep into the playoffs, perhaps to a long-awaited second NBA championship.
Instead, the Washington Wizards are coming out of the all-star break with an 11-42 record, and Grunfeld, the team president, is facing major questions about the direction of the team he built.
After four straight playoff appearances and a string of all-star game appearances by Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, the team's descent this season has been dizzying. The team is on pace for its worst record in franchise history, and Wizards fans are wondering how in the world it reached this low point.
Arenas, who signed a six-year, $111 million contract in July, has yet to play this season as he continues to rehabilitate a left knee that has undergone three surgeries. His absence, combined with that of center Brendan Haywood, who also hasn't played because of a right wrist injury, left Butler, Jamison and a mix of players who are inexperienced or simply haven't performed very well.
"I understand their frustration," Grunfeld said. "Nobody is more frustrated than [owner Abe Pollin] and myself, the players and the staff."
Make no mistake about it: This is Grunfeld's team. Every player on the 15-man roster has been drafted, traded for, signed as a free agent or signed to a contract extension by Grunfeld.
He even picked the current coach, Ed Tapscott, after firing Eddie Jordan following a 1-10 start to the season. Jordan was hired by Pollin shortly before Grunfeld took over in June 2003. Grunfeld recently said he stands by his decision to fire Jordan.
He also said that he does not regret awarding Arenas such a huge contract last summer even though the three-time all-star had been limited to 13 games last season after undergoing a second knee surgery. At the time of the signing, Grunfeld thought Arenas would be ready to play the majority of this season. Arenas originally expected to return by December, but has continued to experience discomfort in the knee and has been limited to games of one-on-one and other non-contact work. No official timetable has been established for Arenas's return, but, according to a team source, the Wizards expect to have Arenas and Haywood back before the end of the season.
Grunfeld said he would "absolutely" sign Arenas again knowing what he knows now. "Gilbert is a top-notch player and we expect him to be back and we expect him to play at an all-star level. I wish I had a time frame to give you, but you never really know with those things."
Injury has been a consistent story line this season. In addition to Arenas and Haywood, starting shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson slumped badly early, in part because of a nagging lower back problem that forced him to miss 21 games. Also, Andray Blatche, who was made a starter after injuries to Haywood and Etan Thomas, has missed nine straight games with a left knee injury.
Another major decision by Grunfeld was to re-sign two-time all-star Jamison to a four-year, $50 million contract. Jamison, 32, is turning in a typically solid season. But he, along with fellow two-time all-star Butler, has not been enough to stop the losing. Both players have also contributed to the team's defensive deficiencies.
Also, Grunfeld could not make a strong offer to valuable free agent reserve guard Roger Mason Jr. because the team already had roughly $69 million committed to contracts before adding veteran guard Juan Dixon late in the free agency process. (The luxury-tax threshold was $71.1 million this season.) Mason wound up signing a two-year, $7.3 million deal with San Antonio, where the Washington native is averaging 11.9 points per game and has connected on four game-winning shots to help the Spurs (35-16).
Without Arenas, Haywood, Mason and Antonio Daniels (who was traded to New Orleans for Mike James in December), Tapscott has relied heavily on veteran role players such as Darius Songaila and James, and a batch of youngsters such as rookie center JaVale McGee, second-year players Dominic McGuire, Nick Young and Javaris Crittenton, and fourth-year forward-center Andray Blatche.
McGee has shown potential and could be a star down the line but it remains to be seen whether any of the youngsters will develop into contributors on a championship-caliber team.
According to one rival general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to go on the record about another team, the Wizards' struggles this season can really be boiled down to the absence of Haywood, Mason and Daniels.
"To me, that team overachieved to win 43 games last year," the general manager said. "Haywood was key to the defense obviously, but guys like Mason and Daniels and DeShawn Stevenson, who had a pretty good year, they were huge also. The difference this year is that you've got a bunch of kids in there with Butler and Jamison and it's just not the same. It's hard to win with that much change, especially when you're relying on young guys."
A rival scout, who also requested anonymity because he did not want to be quoted talking about another team, put it this way: "No knock on those guys, because under the right circumstances they can help a team, but let's be honest. If you're starting Mike James, Darius Songaila and Dominic McGuire, how good are you?"
Possible silver linings to an otherwise brutal season is that Grunfeld is getting plenty of opportunity to evaluate the youngsters as they play meaningful minutes and the team has a good chance at landing a high pick in the draft lottery.
Possible top picks in this year's draft include Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin, Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet, Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio and Arizona State guard James Harden. However, because the Wizards already have such huge financial commitments, there is a decent chance Grunfeld will consider trading the pick.
The team has about $75.9 million committed to contracts for next season, which would put them over the luxury-tax threshold (it typically rises slightly each year but may not go up next year, depending upon league revenue) before signing a lottery pick.
First-year salaries for players taken at the top of the lottery are between $2.7 million and $4.2 million, and that would place the Wizards significantly over the threshold, something Pollin has avoided in the past. Teams that go over the threshold must pay a dollar-for-dollar tax after the season.
But there are other reasons Grunfeld might try to trade the pick. It could allow him to shed an otherwise difficult-to-trade player -- such as Thomas, who is on the books for $7.4 million next season, or James, who holds a player option for $6.5 million next season -- while adding a valuable veteran.
The last time the Wizards were in the lottery, in 2004, Grunfeld packaged the fifth pick (which turned out to be point guard Devin Harris) with Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner and traded it to Dallas for Jamison.
That move, along with the signing of Arenas as a free agent the previous summer, was crucial in sparking a turnaround that led to four straight playoff appearances. Grunfeld also pulled off one of the best trades in team history when he acquired Butler from the Lakers for Kwame Brown in 2005.
"We'll go into the summer with a lot of assets," Grunfeld said of the potential lottery pick. "We'll have options."
And despite this disastrous season, he is not ready to break up the core of Arenas, Butler and Jamison.
With Thursday's trade deadline looming, Grunfeld said he has received plenty of interest in his players and would consider a move if the right deal came along. But he also would still like to see the current core have a chance to be healthy at the same time.
"I like our players," Grunfeld said. "If you look at our players on paper: Gilbert, Antawn, Caron, DeShawn, Brendan and the collection of other players like Darius, Mike James, Blatche and the young guys, I think we can compete with most teams in the league. But, you have to have the group together for a while so they can develop some chemistry and get a sense of what their roles are. Once we get our group together, there's a solid foundation."