As Gilbert Arenas’s 2008-09 season dragged on, injuries limiting him to just two game appearances late in the year, he would show up late to a Washington Wizards team meeting or a treatment because he wasn’t playing and, well, because he could. Ed Tapscott, the interim coach, finally had enough. After all, the Wizards had rules about being on time, violations punishable by fines.
But Arenas knew who would win this game of chicken.
“I remember telling Ed Tapscott, because he wanted to fine me,” Arenas said, laughing at the memory of missing a shoot-around in Detroit, “I said: ‘You fine me and send that s--- up there. Ain’t nothing going to happen.’ ”
Arenas was right. Although the fine slip went to Ernie Grunfeld, the former Wizards president of basketball operations who had the final say on such matters, no financial punishment was administered.
This was not an isolated incident. For the past decade, the Wizards have not always held players accountable, a problem the next president of basketball operations might find difficult to uproot.
“When I was there, the culture really wasn’t set,” said Brendan Haywood, who played the first 8½ years of his NBA career in Washington, from 2001 to 2010. “There was never a set place [or] plan of: ‘Listen, this is what we do here. This is how we go about things here,’ that you sometimes see in other organizations.”
Over several months, The Washington Post conducted interviews with 23 people closely associated with the Wizards: current and former players, team staffers who have spent years in Washington and high-level executives across the NBA. They were asked for their interpretation of the Wizards’ team culture, and in those interviews, a revealing portrait came into focus, offering insight into Washington’s struggles to build a contender.
Grunfeld, who spent 16 years as team president before being fired April 2, was described as clever and precise but also a pushover, allowing players to dictate their own rules. In seeking to create freedom for his players, particularly stars, he overlooked slight transgressions with the same patience that had been afforded to him by two tolerant owners.
Ted Leonsis, the founder of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics, is regarded as a savvy and respected businessman in NBA ownership circles and is even described as a “top-tier” owner by one peer. However, Leonsis also is viewed as waiting too long to step in and make significant changes — particularly while spending too much money on the team’s “big three” of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. when he should have recognized personality conflicts that undermined that plan.
Grunfeld and Leonsis declined interview requests for this story.
In April, the Wizards concluded the season with a 32-50 record and missed the playoffs. Trying to reboot the franchise, they have interviewed at least four general manager candidates.
The next president will encounter a list of tasks, including making a lottery pick and adding free agents without much salary cap flexibility. But setting a beneficial culture and reversing the problematic patterns ingrained within the franchise’s foundation could be the toughest challenge.
“The reason the culture’s so bad,” said a person with direct knowledge of the Wizards’ team structure, “[is] there’s no one that’s making these guys be responsible.”
Bobby Portis’s life had been turned upside down, and his phone was ringing. On Feb. 6, Portis was involved in the Wizards’ trade with the Chicago Bulls, and although he felt a bit rejected, the calls from 202 area codes made him feel wanted.
Within 10 minutes of the trade, Portis heard from Grunfeld.
“Everybody called,” Portis said. “Kind of made me feel better at the time.”
From newbies to former Wizards, players paint Washington as a desirable organization.
“My time there was amazing,” said Porter, who played his first six seasons in Washington before being traded to Chicago in that deal involving Portis.
Porter described Grunfeld as “the guy running the shots,” and in that sense, Grunfeld created an atmosphere where freedom was passed down to players, and encouraged on the court by coaches, most recently by Scott Brooks.
“A lot of guys like that because you don’t have nobody on you constantly: ‘Be here, do this, do that,’ ” said Wesley Johnson, who played 12 games with the Wizards this season.
Grunfeld liked to treat players well off the court, too. When Arenas arrived in Washington in 2003, he remembers the players’ lounge was as spartan as a hospital waiting room — a color TV and a couple of lounge chairs. But over time, Grunfeld renovated the lounge, adding a pool table and making it a player-friendly hideaway. The team also brought in a masseuse, a chiropractor and the latest technology.
“He was fast-forward as a general manager,” Arenas said. “So if a player asked for something, 90 percent of the time, the player got it.”
Such indulgences have not helped the Wizards attract top free agents. In 2016, Kevin Durant, the homegrown superstar, did not even grant Washington a meeting before signing with Golden State.
Instead, the team has made do by packaging first-round draft picks to trade for players such as Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris, or renting veterans at the end of their prime such as Paul Pierce. At times, these stopgap moves have worked. In 2014-15, Pierce spent the season spreading poise and experience in the Wizards’ locker room. However, Pierce chose to go elsewhere after that season, and the team struggled to replace his leadership.
“When they have veterans on the team, guys like Paul Pierce and guys like [Trevor] Ariza, it was a different type of culture compared to when you don’t have those types of veterans on the team,” said Haywood, now an analyst on NBA TV. “That’s why you can sometimes see the team dip in maturity and how they handle adversity sometimes. The culture wasn’t something that was continuous.”
Around the NBA, Leonsis has a respected voice, especially as it relates to media opportunities that the league could pursue, according to several owners familiar with his priorities. Yet on basketball matters, Leonsis often has remained in the background, allowing Grunfeld to run the show.
In 2016, the team never had a shot with Durant but had enough salary cap space to lure another free agent. Members of the front office flew to Atlanta for a meeting with all-star Al Horford but could not convince him to join Washington. While it’s common for NBA owners to make personal pitches to top free agents — Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob joined a large contingent in the Hamptons to woo Durant — Leonsis did not attend the meeting with Horford.
Leonsis has remained active in other areas, as seen in his recent willingness to dole out maximum contracts. However, some in the NBA with insight into the Wizards’ situation have reviewed the defunct trio of Wall, Beal and Porter as Leonsis’s costliest mistake.
The Wizards’ win-now moves limited salary cap space and launched the franchise into the luxury tax in 2017-18, but they didn’t lead to success. Porter often got lost, with Wall wanting the offense to flow through him and Beal focused on vaulting himself to all-star status. This dynamic did not work, and to some, Leonsis should have been able to forecast the issue before spending so much money.
“When you have three guys who want to be the guy, you’re not going to win,” said an NBA owner who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And I think the GM or the owner should’ve known that.”
Lack of accountability
Over the years, Grunfeld has been judged by his mistakes as president, but he also made sound decisions in rebuilding the team without the benefit of landing top free agents. During the Arenas years, Grunfeld pulled off multiplayer trades to get Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, and he drafted Nick Young and JaVale McGee in the first round.
Grunfeld also had other talents.
“I know what Ernie’s real big strength was,” said a person who worked on the Wizards’ coaching staff for many years: “being close to the owner.”
Grunfeld built a good relationship with Abe Pollin, who died in 2009. Although Pollin was a friendly owner who had an open-door policy, according to those who worked under him, he informed staffers to take their issues directly to the general manager.
Grunfeld also enjoyed a strong bond with Leonsis. Despite Grunfeld’s 493-639 record at the time, Leonsis extended Grunfeld’s contract in the fall of 2017. For years, Grunfeld was empowered by his bosses, and he often overlooked his players’ antics.
Several people with knowledge of the Wizards’ front office said that if a player broke a team rule, a fine or suspension would be recommended to Grunfeld, but they said they believe Grunfeld did not approve many of the punishments issued at Arenas while most of the fines directed at other players went through.
Even lesser players received star treatment. Haywood recalled a time when Andray Blatche, who played in Washington from 2005 to 2012, refused to lift weights. Grunfeld’s solution: deputize the strength coach to force Blatche into the weight room. Haywood, who witnessed this interaction, said such enforcement should be Grunfeld’s job.
“I said, ‘That’s where you come in,’ ” Haywood said. Grunfeld “didn’t like the fact that I said that and kind of thought I was abrasive at the time and didn’t like it.”
“[A player] basically gets to do whatever he wants to without any repercussions,” Haywood said of. “That’s the culture.”
In November, Grunfeld fined his star after Wall hurled an expletive at Brooks during practice. Grunfeld issued Wall a $10,000 fine for “conduct detrimental to the team,” according to multiple people with knowledge of the fine amount. Although Wall had received lighter fines in his career, it was the first time he had been punished financially to this extent. Later, Brooks stated publicly that he shared blame in the incident in which Wall cursed at him.
In contrast to other organizations, the Wizards’ handling of the practice blowup was viewed as lenient.
“The s--- that happens in Washington, D.C., will never happen in Miami with Pat Riley,” said a longtime agent who has dealt with the front office. “Never.”
After Leonsis declined an interview request, the Wizards released a statement echoing sentiments expressed after Grunfeld’s firing a month ago.
“When we decided to begin the search for a new head of basketball operations, we saw it as a great opportunity to reset our strategy and vision while staying focused on becoming a world-class organization,” the statement read. “We then began a collaborative process of introspection regarding the successes and failures of our own team while being open-minded about the best practices of other franchises. We’re confident that the result of that process will move us in the right direction and, subsequently, that the person we hire will execute our jointly-revised strategy and vision in order to help us reach our goals.”
How much of that revised strategy and vision will involve reestablishing the franchise’s values and practices — and how quickly any of it can be implemented — remains to be seen.
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