Ernie Grunfeld thinks he can pull off a basketball feat that proved too difficult even for Michael Jordan.
In 20 months as general manager and two seasons as a player, Jordan failed to drag the moribund Washington Wizards into the playoffs. But Grunfeld, hired as the team's president of basketball operations in June of last year, believes that the club has the talent to make the playoffs after a seven-year drought.
As the Wizards prepare to begin training camp in Richmond on Tuesday, Grunfeld is up against the team's dismal playoff history. Last season Washington finished sixth in the seven-team Eastern Conference Atlantic Division with a 25-57 record. More than 20 years have passed since Washington advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. The franchise's last championship was in 1978.
Grunfeld dismisses the past as an indicator for future success. "Different players, different front offices, different times," said Grunfeld, citing a new attitude on this season's team. As an example, he points to Gilbert Arenas, the club's talented but erratic point guard, who missed 27 games last season because of a groin injury.
During the offseason Grunfeld has received reports from MCI Center security personnel that Arenas arrives as late as 10:30 p.m., or as early as 7:30 a.m., to work on incorporating into his own repertoire the crossover dribbles, head fakes and fadeaway jumpers of his more established NBA peers, such as Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Stephon Marbury.
"I know that other players are out partying while I'm putting in extra time developing my skills," said Arenas, a three-point shooter who has worked on adding a mid-range jump shot to his game. "This is my year to knock one of those veterans out of the all-star game."
Grunfeld, noted for turning around ailing teams, has also gone to work improving three weaknesses he saw in the team last season.
"We knew we have to do a better job of rebounding, playing defense and coming together as a group," Grunfeld said. "I am looking for improvement in all three of those areas."
He added that the team also lacked experienced winners.
This summer Grunfeld acquired Antawn Jamison, one of the league's top 10 scorers over the past four seasons and a noted locker room leader, in a trade. Jamison helped the Dallas Mavericks to a 52-30 record and into the playoffs by averaging 14.8 points and 6.3 rebounds last season as a reserve. He was voted the top NBA's top reserve this summer.
Besides Jamison, Grunfeld signed well-traveled veterans Anthony Peeler and Samaki Walker. In his career, Peeler has played in 50 playoff games, most recently with the Sacramento Kings. Walker was a member of two Los Angeles Lakers teams that won NBA championships (2001 and 2002).
And Grunfeld continues to tinker with his roster. Yesterday, the team announced that it had signed six free agents, including former Wizards guard Laron Profit. The 6-foot-5 guard, a former standout at Maryland, averaged 3.0 points in his two years with the club (1999 to 2001).
Washington's future rests with the talented young players the club has acquired over the past three years, such as Arenas, forward Kwame Brown, Jared Jeffries, Jarvis Hayes and Steve Blake.
Brown, the first overall pick in the 2001 draft from Glynn Academy high school in Georgia, has been slow to pick up the NBA game. The 7-foot Brown underwent foot surgery on Aug. 1 and could miss training camp, the team said.
He averaged 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds last season and league observers have predicted that his performance this season will go a long way to determining whether he will join former prep-to-pros who have matured into NBA stars, such as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal.
As for the Wizards' second-year coach, Eddie Jordan, Grunfeld says he is happy with his performance.
The Wizards hired Jordan, a former assistant with the New Jersey Nets, before they hired a general manager to replace Wes Unseld, who left the position for health reasons. Typically an NBA team hires a GM and lets him choose his own coach.
"He absolutely would have been one of my candidates," Grunfeld said. "He had a lot to do with the New Jersey Nets when they went to the NBA Finals two years in a row. He's a great basketball mind."