An argument easily could be made that Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld should lose his job.
The Wizards again have one of the NBA’s worst records. They’re headed to their third consecutive trip to the draft lottery and will miss the playoffs for the fourth time in Grunfeld’s eight-year tenure. Even Washington’s good years under Grunfeld were only so-so, his critics would contend.
I get all of that. I know Grunfeld has made mistakes in leading the Wizards to this point. Still, it’s not time for a major shakeup in Washington’s basketball operation, particularly because Grunfeld has performed well recently. He has made enough of the right moves this season to warrant continued control.
Grunfeld, whose contract expires after the 2012 season, has worked effectively within the confines of owner Ted Leonsis’s plan to rebuild the Wizards. He’s off to a good start in the first year of a project with no end date listed.
Leonsis declined to comment about Grunfeld, saying through a spokesman he would evaluate the Wizards’ entire operation after the season.
Viewing the Wizards’ bleak situation realistically last summer, Leonsis gave Grunfeld a list of tasks to complete, many ranging from difficult to seemingly impossible. Leonsis’s top fantasy wish-list item? Trade Gilbert Arenas.
Arenas was considered untradeable because of the baggage from his embarrassing gun incident during the 2009-10 season, his knee problems and a contract that guarantees him about $62 million over the next three seasons.
Grunfeld surprised many longtime NBA followers (me included) in getting out from under Arenas’s contract, potentially saving the Wizards more than $30 million when he sent the former star to Orlando for Rashard Lewis in December.
The Wizards cleared more cap space in February after point guard Mike Bibby — acquired from Atlanta with veteran swingman Maurice Evans, rookie guard Jordan Crawford and a first-round pick this summer for point guard Kirk Hinrich and center Hilton Armstrong — gave up his entire $6.2 million salary next season as part of a buyout to leave the Wizards and sign with Miami. If this offseason’s seemingly inevitable lockout eventually ends, the Wizards could have about $20 million in cap room next season.
“When Ted took over, he did have a blueprint of the kind of things he wanted to see and what direction he wanted the franchise to go in,” Grunfeld said Tuesday in a phone interview. “And that blueprint was to build through the draft, to develop our young players and to get cap flexibility moving forward.”
Rookie point guard John Wall has been everything the Wizards expected while providing the foundation for their youth movement. Wall is pushing the Wizards to think big, bigger than they have since Wes Unseld was their franchise player, and it has long been clear Grunfeld chose wisely with the No. 1 overall pick.
As much as Washington benefited cap-wise because of Bibby’s desire to leave, Crawford’s performance has been the most intriguing development of the trade. Unable to crack playoff-bound Atlanta’s rotation, Crawford has provided scoring and toughness with Washington and “he and John complement each other well,” Grunfeld said.
Crawford welcomes challenges. He raises his hand when Coach Flip Saunders seeks someone to help Wall down the stretch and, most importantly, delivers.
“He has guts,” Grunfeld said.
That’s what young center JaVale McGee displayed during his impressive performance on a five-game Western trip.
The athletic, raw 7-footer had the best stretch of his three-year career. McGee was a force on both offense and defense while playing with focus and effort, which hasn’t happened as often as the Wizards would prefer.
And then there’s fourth-year guard Nick Young.
Slowed because of a knee injury late in the season, the Wizards’ leading scorer nonetheless made encouraging strides offensively, which Grunfeld envisioned Young would if his role and minutes increased. Although it would be nice if the 6-7 Young rebounded more (he has a personal-best 2.7 average this season), Grunfeld said “you have a pretty solid three-guard rotation going down the road because Jordan can play both positions.”
What’s most important to rebuilding organizations, what’s most needed to maintain optimism during inevitably difficult times, are signs of progress from the young players who are expected to help spur turnarounds.
The Wizards have had some positive developments in this key area. They also have cap room, and they’ll have two first-round draft picks this summer. Grunfeld is driving the bus, so he gets the credit.
“All those young players have shown real promise,” Grunfeld said.
It’s fair to point out the Wizards are in this mess, in large part, because Grunfeld handed Arenas a six-year, $111-million contract in the summer of 2008.
Grunfeld risked a lot, perhaps even his job status, on the three-time all-star and got burned.
But the late Abe Pollin was not interested in rebuilding, and Arenas was by far the team’s most talented player. From a business standpoint, Arenas drew people to Verizon Center. In the NBA, the worst thing isn’t being bad. The worst thing is being bad and irrelevant.
“Our mandate was to get to the playoffs,” Grunfeld said.
The Wizards reached the playoffs in four consecutive seasons starting in 2004-05. They won only one series, however, and never had more than 45 victories during the regular season. That success, albeit modest, followed a span of 16 years — from 1988-89 through 2003-04 — during which the Wizards had only one playoff appearance with no victories. Washington had not previously advanced past the first round since 1981-82.
Of course, guaranteeing forward Andray Blatche almost $27.3 million was indefensible. Grunfeld should cut ties with Blatche this summer because his strong late-season performances are fool’s gold. The team also could face a difficult decision with Young if the restricted free agent receives a lucrative offer from another team.
When judged relative to the team’s lack of success since the 1970s, what Pollin wanted and how he’s executing Leonsis’s new vision, Grunfeld has performed better than the ledger indicates.
Grunfeld is doing what Leonsis asked of him. That should be good enough for now.