The next leader of the Washington Wizards won’t have the luxury of starting from scratch, of fashioning a new team from the rubble of a lost era. No, the franchise’s relatively easy decision finally to part with longtime executive Ernie Grunfeld will be followed by what probably will be years of hard work undoing his recent moves.
The Wizards fired Grunfeld, their president since 2003, on Tuesday, inciting a round of celebrations from their beleaguered fan base. His tenure was thoroughly mixed: The Grunfeld era included eight playoff appearances, five straight sub-30-win seasons, the thrills provided by a young John Wall and the Gilbert Arenas roller-coaster ride and gun scandal.
Unfortunately, Grunfeld’s legacy is more likely to spoil than to age like fine wine. Why? Because recent big-picture, shortsighted decisions — aimed at getting the team over the hump during Wall’s prime — are bound to loom over the franchise for years. The Wizards’ cupboard isn’t just bare; it needs a new coat of paint, new hinges for its door and some patchwork to fill in a massive hole.
Wall, long the answer to everything that ailed the Wizards, is now their biggest impediment to a successful future. The 28-year-old point guard, who could miss most — if not all — of next season after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon in February, has not even started his four-year, $170 million supermax extension.
That contract, which played a role in Grunfeld’s correct decision to dump forward Otto Porter Jr. for salary relief at February’s trade deadline, effectively will prevent Washington’s next president from pursuing top-shelf free agents. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis might be able to get some financial relief next season thanks to an insurance policy on Wall’s contract, but no star, or even an aspiring star, will want to sign up to play for a team who will be committing such a huge chunk of its cap space to a player with Wall’s injury track record.
Wall’s contract is so onerous that Washington might not have enough assets on hand to even craft a functional trade scenario. Would rival teams agree to trade for Bradley Beal if it meant taking on the money owed to Wall? Many wouldn’t, even though Beal is a fringe all-NBA player in his prime.
Washington’s bleak outlook can be traced to more than just Wall’s unfortunate circumstances. Because the Wizards did not execute a controlled tank this season, Beal has played heavy minutes and worked his way into potentially qualifying for a supermax contract of his own. While Beal’s loyalty to the Wizards has been firm throughout a tumultuous season, he would be silly to settle for anything less than the supermax if it was available, given the many challenges surrounding him. Grunfeld’s successor, then, might be forced to make an exceedingly tough decision on Washington’s best player: Pay up to keep Beal happy, or trade him to start a full-scale rebuilding effort.
The roster only gets more grim from there. Grunfeld traded away former first-round pick Kelly Oubre Jr. to rent veteran Trevor Ariza for an aborted playoff quest. He then traded away Porter for Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis, two players Washington is better off not paying. You could argue that Beal is the only player on the roster capable of being a long-term starter on a contender. Craziest of all, Dwight Howard was somehow granted a player option for next season, so he will need to be traded, bought out, or tolerated for another 12 months.
Replenishing the coffers with young talent might take two or three years of good drafts, but such an approach will be tricky. Remarkably, Grunfeld already has traded away the Wizards’ second-round picks every year from 2019 to 2023. Washington does have two others coming back during that five-year window, but the net deficit will make it harder to retool around Beal in the short-term.
In firing Grunfeld, Leonsis made a point to declare that the Wizards “did not meet our stated goals of qualifying for the playoffs” and that he needed to uphold a “culture of accountability.” Those statements — and the executive change — show that Washington’s owner is no longer stuck in the deep denial that marked the past two seasons.
That’s a good first step. Next: the Wizards should target an outside executive, one who can independently reach honest conclusions about the state of their union and who is empowered and entrusted by Leonsis to communicate the full scope of the damage. After all, Grunfeld might be gone, but the real cheers won’t begin until all of the Grunfeld-era decisions are in the past.