New expectations for Grunfeld

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; D2

As usual, Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld's pre-training camp news conference was peppered with questions about Gilbert Arenas. But there was something missing from his 30-minute sit-down at Verizon Center on Thursday. At no point did Grunfeld talk about postseason goals.

Through more than two decades as an executive in New York, Milwaukee and Washington, Grunfeld has usually opened the season with a veteran roster, focused on making the playoffs and possibly competing for a title.

But this time around - having purged most of last season's roster, winning No. 1 overall pick John Wall in the NBA draft lottery and electing to start over with younger, hungrier players - the goals for the Wizards are much more modest: to be competitive, to play hard and to grow together. And Grunfeld is not complaining.

"In 20, 21 years that I've been a general manager, this is one of the most anticipated seasons I've had," Grunfeld said. "It's a fresh start. This is more exciting, because this is the beginning of a new era. We've made no secret of the fact that we're rebuilding."

Grunfeld's biggest announcement actually came after the cameras had clicked off and several reporters began to trickle out. With a handful of reporters still lingering, Grunfeld let slip what new owner Ted Leonsis had been intimating for some time - that the Wizards plan to return to the red-white-and-blue uniforms that the Bullets wore in their first 23 years in the Washington area before the late Abe Pollin changed the name of the team. Grunfeld said the change would not occur until the 2011-12 season.

Leonsis took over as majority owner of the franchise shortly before the draft, pledging that the Wizards would follow the same team-building model as the Capitals, who rose into an NHL power through the draft, shrewd deals and player signings. Grunfeld said he has always been on the same page as Leonsis, having started the rebuilding efforts in February, when he made a flurry of salary-dumping deals to create cap space last summer.

Instead of using that money to chase big-name talents in free agency, the Wizards took advantage of teams that were in pursuit of superstars. They acquired veteran guard Kirk Hinrich and first-round pick Kevin Seraphin from Chicago and former No. 6 overall pick Yi Jianlian from New Jersey, re-signed veteran forward Josh Howard, signed free agent center Hilton Armstrong and watched Miami lure the three biggest free agent prizes. "There's about six or seven teams that had cap room and only one team had a lot of success," Grunfeld said.

While NBA Commissioner David Stern has advised Arenas and the Wizards not to talk about his felony gun conviction, Grunfeld did take time to speak about how Arenas's latest comeback effort is coming along. "Gilbert has always been a basketball junkie," Grunfeld said. "He loves the game. He loves to be in the gym. He's always been an extremely hard worker. He's doing the same things he's always done in the past. He's in outstanding shape and he's really looking forward to this season."

Grunfeld added that he doesn't believe Arenas and Wall will have any problems as the starting back court, mentioning how he had Sam Cassell and Gary Payton with him in Milwaukee and grew up watching Earl Monroe and Walt "Clyde" Frazier with the Knicks.

Grunfeld said forward Andray Blatche, who broke a bone in his right foot in June, has been given "full clearance" for basketball but may take a week or two before he participates in full practices. He also said Howard may not return from his injured left knee until November or December.

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