A Plan Gone Awry
Wizards Struggle for Direction With Roster Built by GM Grunfeld
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; Page E01
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).