Wizards owner Ted Leonsis hasn’t come out and flatly stated that Ernie Grunfeld and Flip Saunders would be back next season, but his comments — both on his blog and in an interview with the Junkies on 106.7 The Fan — on Thursday were the strongest show of support that he’s given the duo during this trying campaign.
On his personal blog , Leonsis wrote that he gave Grunfeld “high grades in executing upon our rebuild to date. I am excited and psyched by our quick pivot into our future” He also linked to Washington Post columnist Jason Reid’s argument that Grunfeld needs more time to complete the task of building a winner.
Then, in the radio interview that Dan Steinberg transcribed for the DC Sports Bog, Leonsis said he was “thrilled” with Grunfeld and “very happy” with Saunders. “I am pretty loyal. I believe we’re in it together. And as long as we are on the same page, I think that there’s harmony in the organization,” Leonsis said. “I said we want to tear the team down and be young and have upside and have cap space. Check.”
Leonsis has never given the vibe that he wants to get rid of either Grunfeld or Saunders and has been completely understanding that the rebuilding process was going be gruesome. He has repeatedly said that it would be difficult and asked for patience as the players grow and develop. He’s been down this path before: Alex Ovechkin finished last in the Southeast Division and missed the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, so there was a hope, but not necessarily an expectation for John Wall to come into the league and immediately take the Wizards back to the postseason.
Even when the team opened the season with 25 consecutive losses on the road, Leonsis was disappointed but not ready to clean house. He understood that the team wasn’t talented enough to be a serious playoff contender and never used wins and losses to measure progress — even as fans ranted and vented.
Leonsis gave Grunfeld the responsibility of acquiring assets and creating financial flexibility. In the past two seasons, Grunfeld has acquired four additional first-round draft picks (Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, Jordan Crawford and the Atlanta Hawks’ 2011 first round pick) and kept the team from making many long-term commitments. He wanted Saunders to develop young talent and create a different culture in Washington. While it has taken time for that to take shape, the Wizards are beginning to establish an identity as the season comes to a close.
Grunfeld is under contract for one more year and Saunders is owed nearly $9 million over the next two seasons, which places him in a strong position going forward. But there is something else that cannot be discounted as the Wizards approach the offseason.
The pending lockout.
If Leonsis wanted to bring in his own general manager and coach, why would he make such a move when a protracted lockout is more than likely? Severing ties would be a costly decision, but it would be even more expensive to pay Grunfeld, Saunders and their possible replacements to do…what, exactly? The man just shelled out nine figures to get the Wizards and Verizon Center, how much money is he supposed to burn?
This doesn’t mean that Leonsis won’t make a change, because the man has the power to do whatever he pleases. And, until he directly states Grunfeld and/or Saunders are coming back, people will continue to speculate. But Leonsis has consistently sounded content with the work that they have done for him.
“I’m pretty happy with where we are,” Leonsis said in his radio interview. “Flip and Ernie and me and the organization and all the people in sales and marketing, we’re all on the same page, and it feels pretty good right now.”
Leonsis inherited Grunfeld and Saunders, agreeing to purchase the team last May and unable to fully take over the franchise until a few weeks before the NBA draft. Last year, Leonsis referred to the duo as “my guys,” using the track records of both men as reason to retain them.
As Reid mentioned in his column, Grunfeld has made his share of mistakes — such as giving Gilbert Arenas $111 million and Andray Blatche a $28 million extension. Blatche’s contract is still relatively reasonable in comparison to other big man, especially given his production. But with his spotty history off the court, it was a serious risk that played out with an uneven season.
Grunfeld also held onto the concept of a Big Three too long, which led to the need for a rebuild after Arenas and Caron Butler couldn’t get along and Arenas did the unthinkable by bringing guns to the arena.
People question what Grunfeld has done in the draft, but you can find only one draft pick — Oleksiy Pecherov — who hasn’t become a productive NBA player. And the Wizards have mostly selected in the middle of the first round, where you generally find rotation players and are lucky to get starters. Grunfeld explains that he traded the fifth pick in 2009 because the late Abe Pollin wanted to win — not wait for a winner — with his advanced age and declining health. And, while he didn’t exactly score by getting Mike Miller and Randy Foye, Leonsis has decided to judge him based on what he’s done under him.
This season, Grunfeld traded Arenas, which appeared impossible. One Eastern Conference scout said Grunfeld should get executive of the year for that move alone. But Grunfeld really got it right with the Kirk Hinrich deal. He held out until the Hawks were willing to include Crawford, who has become a tremendous pickup that has meshed well with Wall. Maurice Evans has also brought a different attitude to the team, and Mike Bibby’s $6.2 million give back was dumb luck.
As for Saunders, is he the right coach for this young team? Maybe, maybe not. He is a great coach who knows his stuff, but he has made some mistakes as well. I’ve talked to former players who have said that Saunders doesn’t always display the “backbone” needed to get through to his teams; that he’ll back down against a strong-willed player. I also had an interesting conversation with a Western Conference scout who told me that Saunders would have to adjust his style to adapt to the athletic roster that the Wizards have assembled. The scout said the Wizards should run much more than they do, especially with a point guard like Wall.
That being said, the Wizards have rarely stepped onto the court with the edge in talent, which puts the team under pressure to overachieve and play at a high level every night. It’s tough to channel that sort of energy for all 82 games, and some good to great teams can win a few games simply because they are more talented. So it’s hard to measure him by wins and losses under those circumstances. But it’s also hard not to notice the improvements that JaVale McGee and Nick Young have made, how Booker has gotten better and learned to play both forward positions and how he is the coach who has managed to get the most out of Blatche. Wall will be great regardless, but Saunders has challenged him and he has repeatedly accepted.
For all of the struggles the Wizards have had this season, it can’t be lost on anyone that Saunders didn’t sign up to be a part of rebuilding situation. He was a hot free agent coach who had options in the summers of 2008 and 2009 and chose Washington because he thought he could lead the Wizards back to the playoffs. He was forced to become a teacher instead and manage a team that has seen 39 different players in uniform since he took over. Two others, Zydrunas Ilguaskas and Drew Gooden never suited up. With that much turnover — from trades, injuries, buyouts, etc. — how can you expect success?
Success is usually rooted in some sort of stability. And it sounds like Leonsis feels the same way, as it relates to Grunfeld and Saunders.