Pressure Builds on Ernie Grunfeld To Make Washington Wizards a Contender

Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, right, welcomes Randy Foye, left, and Mike Miller, who were acquired in a trade with Minnesota last week.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, right, welcomes Randy Foye, left, and Mike Miller, who were acquired in a trade with Minnesota last week. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009; 12:01 AM

Since finishing a season that matched the worst in Washington Wizards history in mid-April, Ernie Grunfeld, the team's president of basketball operations, has made his first coaching hire with Washington in Flip Saunders, exchanged the fifth overall draft pick and some undesirable contracts for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, and turned the 32nd pick into $2.5 million in pocket change. But Grunfeld's job is far from finished.

Sweat dripped from the brim of Grunfeld's nose as he spoke to reporters after Thursday's NBA draft, which may have been emblematic of the intense pressure he is under to field a legitimate contender in Washington.

"We always want to win," Grunfeld said when asked if the team was in a "win now" mode. "We always say we want to make the playoffs, but it's not enough to make the playoffs; you've got to advance in the playoffs and that's going to be our goal this year."

In nearly eight seasons as general manager of the New York Knicks, Grunfeld's teams made one trip to the NBA Finals (in 1994, although the 1998-99 team he assembled made it that far a few months after he was fired), reached the Eastern Conference finals twice and advanced to the conference semifinals in each season. Grunfeld also spent four seasons with Milwaukee, and the Bucks advanced to the conference finals in 2001, two years before he was eventually pushed aside and landed in Washington.

The Wizards have reached the playoffs in four of his six seasons, but the team has yet to top Grunfeld's second season at the helm, in 2004-05, when it won 45 games and advanced to the conference semifinals for the first time since 1982. But through a combination of minor blunders and some unfortunate luck, the Wizards have been marred by the same problem that tarnished his tenure in Milwaukee -- an inability to be more than a bit player in the postseason.

Grunfeld, who will mark his sixth anniversary with the organization on Tuesday, has assembled the most talented and versatile team in his tenure. But while the trade for Foye and Miller was greeted with excitement from some of his players and support from rival executives, the Wizards' roster remains unbalanced.

Washington has seven guards and just three players taller than 6 feet 10. Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee are the team's only reserve big men, but both are younger than 23, leaving the Wizards with an obvious need to find a veteran power forward or center either though free agency or a trade, with Mike James's expiring contract remaining the most valuable asset at Grunfeld's disposal.

"We'll keep looking around to see if we can add someone else, but we feel comfortable about what we have currently and the depth of our ballclub," Grunfeld said last week. "Right now we have a nice mix of veteran players and developing players. You don't win games on paper, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us."

The Wizards have committed almost $76 million to 13 players and still can use their mid-level exception (about $5.5 million) and biannual exception ($1.99 million), although any signings will have to be made with the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax in mind. Washington is expected to pay a steep penalty next season, with the recession lowering league revenues and the luxury tax level.

Grunfeld said he didn't have any regrets about trading the No. 5 pick to Minnesota -- which also eliminated the $2.7 million first-year salary committed to that player -- even after it turned into Ricky Rubio, the flashy teenage sensation from Spain whom many talent evaluators rated as the second-best prospect in the draft behind No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin. Rubio may eventually blossom into the second coming of Pete Maravich, but Grunfeld didn't have time to wait for him to develop with a roster whose core players -- Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood -- range in age from 27 to 33.

"The only player I would've been upset about sliding down there was Blake," Grunfeld said.

So much of the Wizards' present and future, however, hinges on Arenas, the team's best and most highly compensated player with his $111 million contract. Arenas, who has had three knee surgeries since April 2007, will leave for Chicago tomorrow to meet with famed trainer Tim Grover, who has worked with Michael Jordan, helped revitalize Dwyane Wade's career last summer and pushed Kobe Bryant to the NBA Finals most valuable player award this past postseason.

"Gilbert is fine. He's been working out hard," Grunfeld said. "He looks great. His weight is great. He feels great."

Grunfeld entered the offseason with two seemingly conflicting goals -- trying to aggressively remake the team while staying committed to its core. In his trade discussions over the fifth pick the past few weeks, Grunfeld felt that the demand for some of his players, most notably Butler, merely supported his belief that this team can compete and play basketball into late May.

In Saunders, Grunfeld has a coach who has made the conference finals in four of the past five seasons he has coached and appears to share the same vision as the general manager. When asked if he and Saunders were on the same page, Grunfeld clapped his hands, laughed and said: "Exactly. Page one."

Saunders has developed relationships and worked closely with players such as Arenas, Butler, McGee, Blatche, Javaris Crittenton and Nick Young, who have stopped by Verizon Center this offseason. Saunders is also already implementing some of his offensive and defensive schemes.

"We're all competitive people and I don't think anybody was pleased with how last season went," Grunfeld said. "It was a hiccup because of the injury situation. But I think, to a man, we're committed to working hard about turning things around."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company