Ted Leonsis showed up Tuesday afternoon at the Washington Wizards’ practice facility. Ernie Grunfeld did not.
Leonsis, the CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment and majority team owner, rarely makes the trip to Southeast Washington to drop in on the Wizards. He prefers to stay out of the day-to-day business. But there was business Tuesday that had been a long time coming: Leonsis had fired Grunfeld after 16 years as team president.
“This was a tough day for us,” Leonsis said during an impromptu session with reporters after the team released a statement on Grunfeld’s exit.
Ultimately, the team’s inability to make the playoffs, after Leonsis had proclaimed before the season there would be “no excuses” not to, led to Grunfeld’s demise. The Wizards (32-46) are 11th in the Eastern Conference, and if they lose their final four games, they will reach 50 losses, a painful milestone for a team that entered the season with what many believed to be one of the best core groups of players in the East.
“It’s probably the biggest miss I’ve had in setting goals with [what] the actuality will be,” Leonsis said. “I apologize, but I do think the fan base knows our sincerity in doing what is necessary.”
The season capsized under the owner’s expectations, which should have been basic objectives for a veteran team. However, even before major injuries ended the seasons of John Wall and Dwight Howard, something wasn’t right.
Pending free agents ruled the majority of the locker-room space and, unsurprisingly, chemistry issues boiled over. The team also lacked defensive identity and never lived up to Coach Scott Brooks’s preseason vision of shooting and making a lot of three-pointers.
This was the roster that Grunfeld, and his front-office lieutenants, had constructed. Even after Grunfeld made several trades for the sole purpose of getting under the luxury tax threshold — which may be the greatest accomplishment of the season — his 2018-19 creation will mirror the defining characteristic of many of his previous teams. This roster had failed.
Under Grunfeld’s watch, the Wizards did not reach 50 wins or advance past the second round of the playoffs. Overall, the team went 568-724 during Grunfeld’s tenure, a winning percentage of just .440.
Still, as recently as this past weekend, Grunfeld was going about business as usual. He attended NCAA tournament games, conceivably to scout potential lottery picks for the upcoming draft. According to several people close to Grunfeld, he had no inclination where Leonsis was leaning. Even though rumors that the Wizards had hired an outside search firm were circulating in the league as far back as March 23, many high-ranking people within the team were caught by surprise by what happened Tuesday afternoon.
“No, I didn’t know anything,” Brooks said. "Today was our normal day. I met with my staff. We practiced with our team, and then after practice I met with Ted for a few minutes.
Leonsis informed Grunfeld of his decision earlier Tuesday in a meeting away from the team facility. Leonsis then went to the Entertainment & Sports Arena, where the Wizards were practicing, to speak with Brooks and Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations Tommy Sheppard, who had been Grunfeld’s longtime vice president. Sheppard has been promoted to interim head of basketball operations while the franchise searches for a new chief.
While speaking to reporters, Leonsis was asked about Brooks’s status with the team three times. Brooks, who was hired by Grunfeld in 2016 and given a five-year, $35 million contract, has two years remaining on his contract and is owed a guaranteed amount of $14 million.
“Right now, we have decided on Scott’s status. He’s the coach of the team, and Tommy is ... reporting to me,” Leonsis said. “And we’ll do all this work over the next two or three weeks, and then we’ll see what we hire, who we hire, how we bring that person in, and I’ll onboard them. But there’s no other changes to discuss.”
While more changes could be coming, long-suffering Wizards fans and league insiders shared a common response to Tuesday’s announcement: What took so long?
Only four NBA executives had served in their current roles longer than Grunfeld, 63, and each of them — Miami’s Pat Riley, Dallas’s Donnie Nelson, San Antonio’s R.C. Buford and Boston’s Danny Ainge — have won at least one championship during that time.
Among Grunfeld’s notable recent decisions was a four-year, $64 million deal for center Ian Mahinmi in the summer of 2016 and maximum contracts for three core players he drafted — Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. — that hampered the team’s financial flexibility and ability to improve. Porter was traded this season mostly for financial relief, and Wall is expected to miss most or possibly all of next year with an Achilles’ tendon rupture, just as his “supermax” deal kicks in at a base salary of $37.8 million for the 2019-20 season.
Grunfeld also built an exciting Wizards team led by Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler that qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years from 2005 to 2008. That squad, however, was eventually undone by an incident in December 2009 in which Arenas brought guns into the locker room, leading Grunfeld to rebuild around Wall. On Tuesday evening, Wall reacted to the news of Grunfeld’s departure on social media.
“I’d like to thank Ernie for bringing me to DC. As Ted stated, we haven’t had the success that we’ve hoped for over the years but I’m hopeful for the future of the organization,” Wall wrote on Twitter.
While standing on a court he rarely visits and sharing details of a major organizational shift many had speculated would never come, Leonsis spoke clearly but also shared a touch of regret. He shouldered the blame for this season. Grunfeld had made the decisions, but Leonsis was still the boss.
“While Ernie got the news today, I take responsibility,” Leonsis said. “I really do think if you are a grown-up leader that you have to do this. It’s not fun. But we failed, and I failed. So I don’t want to fail.”
Winning 50 games was his vision, but Leonsis had given the front office the autonomy to achieve the goal. He had cut the massive checks, but without hovering over Grunfeld’s shoulders. He had watched losses from courtside seats just an arm’s length from the Wizards’ huddles but didn’t seek out franchise stars Beal and Wall to learn what was really going on with the team.
Even after firing Grunfeld, Leonsis wants to remain an owner who keeps some degree of separation from the daily basketball decisions. He recognizes, however, that it’s time to reboot and find out what went wrong. So Leonsis hired an outside firm to provide services during the search for a new president, as well as advise the Wizards about what they can do better. Leonsis also said he plans to spend the next three weeks hearing from employees. Nothing will be off limits. Leonsis wants honesty.
“This now gives people permission to speak with me and I can break that hierarchy, and so I look forward to that. I haven’t made any opinions on what we’re going to do on the go-forward. I’m going to be in total learn-what’s-happening mode," Leonsis said. "I mean, we’re very cognizant, I’m very cognizant of the calendar on what will happen with the lottery and what will happen with free agency and what will happen with the draft.
“I want to do what’s called ‘best practicing.’ What do the best organizations look like? What do they spend? Maybe I made mistakes in the way we spent and invested our money. I have to be open-minded.”