Ernie Grunfeld kept checking his black and rose gold Hublot, a timepiece so expensive you can’t easily find the retail price on the luxury watch website. On Friday, after sitting comfortably inside the Verizon Center players’ lounge and speaking in detail for nearly an hour about the triumphant 2016-17 season of his Washington Wizards, Grunfeld had more pressing matters on his mind. He again looked down at his right wrist.
“I’ve got to get to practice,” Grunfeld said before leisurely climbing to his feet.
This may be the only time Grunfeld has been in a rush.
Patience has defined Grunfeld’s 14-year tenure as the Wizards’ president of basketball operations. The art of drafting and developing players takes time, he has voiced. It’s a strategic and deliberate approach, he has indicated through past news conferences that followed inglorious endings to the regular season.
In Washington, however, strategic and deliberate has been derided as slow and delusional. The anger among the fan base reached new levels last April when, after he fired Coach Randy Wittman, Grunfeld described the 41-41 season as a “bump in the road.”
When the Wizards started this season by losing eight of their first 10 games and 13 of their first 20, the #FireErnie camp populated on the Wizards’ Twitter account and even crashed Verizon Center for an audience with team owner Ted Leonsis.
Throughout all this, Grunfeld remained patient.
“At that point I was hoping, like everybody else, that we were 20-0, but that’s not the way it works,” Grunfeld said in an interview with The Washington Post on Friday. “But you could see some good things along the way. And it’s a long season. You’re going to have some games that are not going to work out the way you want them to work out. You know, one or two games don’t really spell out the big picture.”
The Wizards are 49-33 and preparing to host a first-round playoff game as the favored team. In a way, this has been the most Grunfeld of seasons.
Washington never made the sexy move. Instead, the front office made solid decisions. The team chased after and signed a coach who could relate to and develop 20-somethings in Scott Brooks. In July, after it did not receive a free agent meeting with Kevin Durant and missed out on its Plan B, Al Horford, Washington pivoted to fill out its roster with role players. Months later, the Wizards fixed those swings-and-misses from the summer by adding a proven scorer in Bojan Bogdanovic before the trade deadline, then a facilitating point guard in Brandon Jennings.
Above all else, Grunfeld held an unshakable belief in the team’s nucleus of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., as well as the organization’s long-held strategy, referred to simply as “The Plan.” Only through the gift of hindsight can Washington’s vision come into focus. The team did not need to be broken down into parts — it just needed patience. And Grunfeld was more than willing to provide his.
“I could understand the frustration that people have because everybody wants to win and they want to win right away. We want to win,” Grunfeld said. “You know, it was frustrating for our players early in the year and it was frustrating for us, so I understand the fans’ frustration, but you know, we felt all along that we had a good team and we had a good group, and we knew early on it was going to take us some time to put it all together.”
During the lengthy interview, as Grunfeld was asked to reflect on the 2-8 start and the early underwhelming play of the bench that he built, his New York-accented voice remained steady. Even his off-the-record revelations never reached higher than a level of nonchalance. That’s because Grunfeld, who will turn 62 years old on April 24, has spent more than three decades in the basketball equivalent of the situation room. He has seen it all before. When he was general manager in New York, his starting point guard, Glenn “Doc” Rivers, tore an anterior cruciate ligament, and the injury likely cost the Knicks the 1994 championship. Then in Milwaukee, his team couldn’t win a playoff series and suddenly broke through to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001 only to fall back into first-round purgatory.
Some of these issues played out in Washington: Wall missed the first 33 games of the 2012-13 season, and Beal spent his first years as a pro fighting through injuries. So the Plan did not truly take hold until 2013, and by then, Grunfeld was steadfast in seeing it play out.
“We’re really in the third year of this process,” Grunfeld said. “We’re still trying to get better, and we’re trying to improve every year, but I feel we really have a very good solid nucleus of players we’ve drafted and we’ve developed and some other players that we’ve traded for and dealt for.”
Still, even his patience was tested at the beginning of the season. When asked whether he considered making a major move after the 7-13 start, Grunfeld replied: “Of course. We’re all competitive. We all want to win.”
That’s as much hysteria you will get out of Grunfeld. Despite the team’s lack of cohesion on the defensive end and the least productive bench in the NBA, Grunfeld said he noticed enough encouraging signs. So he stayed the course. Besides, there weren’t many other avenues available to get past 7-13.
On the surface, the team had little value in assets outside of the starters, so a major move appeared unlikely. However in February, Grunfeld sent Andrew Nicholson, who was given a four-year deal last July but had fallen out of the rotation, and the team’s upcoming first-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets for Bogdanovic and forward Chris McCullough. The deal not only provided a capable scorer for the second unit but moved the rest of Nicholson’s $26 million off the books, allowing the Wizards potentially to keep Porter, an upcoming restricted free agent.
On Friday, Grunfeld repeated the team’s desire to re-sign Porter (“We’d like to have Otto back”) as well as keep the core together for the future.
“We’ve positioned ourselves in such way that our core, our nucleus – that includes [Markieff Morris] because he’s only 27 — we still have a very young talented core that we can continue to build with and build around,” Grunfeld said. “And they haven’t reached their peak yet. We’ve put the pieces together, and now they’ve shown solid, steady improvement, and they’re going to continue to improve. Look at their ages. This is still a very, very young team and a team we feel could be competitive for many years to come. But having said that, we’re always trying to get better. We’re always trying to add a different piece here, a different piece there and try to improve the roster and try to improve the team.”
The Twitter mobs have gone silent. Their hashtags aren’t as prevalent. And yet Grunfeld still leaned over the railing of the practice facility, as he usually does, and surveyed his plan in action. He doesn’t feel vindicated by the outcome of the season. But he smiled and had a sense of excitement in his voice. Game 1 is Sunday afternoon, and Ernie Grunfeld can’t wait.
“We have the most wins in 38 years, and now the fun part starts,” Grunfeld said, “and that’s the playoffs.”