And yet, Grunfeld, whose tenure was on par with some of the league’s most successful team architects, departs with a spotty overall record. Only three times during his stay did the Wizards come within five games of 50 wins. Comparatively, Riley, Buford, Ainge and Nelson have a combined 36 seasons of at least 50 wins.
His recent signature moves as the franchise’s chief — “supermax” or max-contract deals for John Wall, Bradley Beal and the since-traded Otto Porter, a $64 million contract for center Ian Mahinmi — have put the team in a financial bind, this after he’s already been through multiple rebuilds.
Grunfeld’s peers in terms of tenure — Riley, Buford, Ainge and Nelson — built and rebuilt contenders with their franchises, and each have been to the NBA Finals at least twice. Grunfeld was the only one of that group of long-term executives to never steer his team there; the Wizards never reached even the conference finals under Grunfeld.
That pedigree, or lack thereof, had fans celebrating Grunfeld’s dismissal, even as Leonsis looked inward.
“This was a tough day for us,” the owner said on Tuesday.
“While Ernie got the news today, I take responsibility,” he added. “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.”
Leonsis had his sights set on 50 wins this season and a playoff berth. And with LeBron James having departed the Eastern Conference, Washington was expected to at least challenge for top positioning in the conference. Even after a spell of injuries, Leonsis said he thought the team could earn a playoff spot.
“I wanted to win 50 wins because that’s what I thought our arc was, but making the playoffs was really the key thing,” he said. “The base level, to me, was we didn’t make the playoffs, and everyone told me, even after the injuries, that we had enough. I’m also not blind and I was disappointed that even before the injuries I didn’t like the way we were playing.”
Leonsis said he plans to hire a national search firm to analyze industry best practices Washington can replicate and identify candidates to replace Grunfeld. Scott Brooks will remain the Wizards’ coach, Leonsis said, and Tommy Sheppard, Grunfeld’s top lieutenant who has also been with the team 16 years, has taken over as the interim head of basketball operations.