When Ernie Grunfeld sketched the blueprint for the Washington Wizards’ gradual transformation from laughingstock to contender, he didn’t envision hoisting the championship trophy this June. But he anticipated at the very least a playoff berth and perhaps a deep run.
The 2015-16 season concluded without a postseason appearance, however, and the failure fueled Grunfeld’s decision to fire coach Randy Wittman minutes after the Wizards beat the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night to finish the unsatisfactory campaign 41-41.
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Grunfeld insisted inconsistency and a lack of urgency plagued the team and admitted the season was “a step back,” and “it really hurt us.” But he defended his front office’s work, maintaining that the Wizards, despite the sting of not earning a playoff bid, are in a favorable situation with a core featuring a promising back court and salary cap space they meticulously created to add talent this summer.
In summation: This season was unpleasant, but the organization’s focus, from ownership on down, was on this offseason and next season.
“We had a plan in place, and we followed that plan,” said Grunfeld, who will return for his 14th season as the Wizards’ chief decision-maker and lead their coaching search. “Obviously, there was a bump in the road with us not being able to make the playoffs because part of the plan was to get back and be a playoff team, but I think we carried out that plan. It just didn’t happen overnight. This has been a three-year process to put together a group of solid, young players that have proven themselves in this league as legitimate starters and still have substantial flexibility to add to that roster.”
Just four other current NBA general managers have been in their positions longer than Grunfeld: Pat Riley, R.C. Buford, Mitch Kupchak and Danny Ainge. All four have won at least one championship. The Wizards are 444-606 and have posted five winning seasons during Grunfeld’s 13-year tenure, which has bridged from the late Abe Pollin to current owner Ted Leonsis. They have advanced to the playoffs six times and haven’t won more than 46 games in a season.
The next coach will be the fifth since Grunfeld assumed his position in June 2003. He said the search began Thursday and doesn’t have a timetable. He said he will prioritize finding someone he believes will rekindle the defensive identity Wittman had injected over the previous three seasons and emphasized the team must improve at home. Grunfeld isn’t wedded to a specific style of play. That, he said, will be up to the new coach.
Grunfeld described the Wizards job as “desirable,” citing the team’s salary cap room — based on current projections, the Wizards will have $27,410,635 in space plus a projected $2.898 million mid-level room exception — and the players under contract. Candidates for the position include Scott Brooks, Jeff Hornacek and Tom Thibodeau, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
“A lot of agents have already called expressing interest for their clients,” Grunfeld said.
The Wizards didn’t pick up Wittman’s option and are on the hook to pay him $500,000, the partial guarantee on his contract, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Wittman, 56, compiled a 178-199 regular season record and two playoff appearances in four-plus seasons. He was the first coach to take Washington to the Eastern Conference semifinals in consecutive seasons in 36 years. It was a successful run when compared to the rest of the franchise’s dreadful history. But the defensive prowess Wittman planted upon taking over for the late Flip Saunders in January 2012 wilted this season as the team transitioned to a pace-and-space style, and with it went the team’s success.
“The players tell you what to do, and I thought we were very inconsistent this year,” Grunfeld said. “That’s probably the only consistent thing about us: We went up and down. And there was no sense of urgency. I don’t think we played with the type of energy on a nightly basis that you need to achieve the kind of goals that we had. We had high expectations internally and externally.”
Before long, players were openly criticizing Wittman for his decisions, particularly his rotations and lack of in-game adjustments. When players, for example, asked Wittman to settle an on-court dispute about the team’s strategy on defending pick and rolls, he would tell them to figure it out. Players wanted the coach to direct them and make the proper changes.
Behind the scenes, players found his abrasive style — mostly his yelling — overbearing as the season wore on. The team held a players-only meeting after a home loss to the Denver Nuggets at the end of January, and players had tuned out Wittman by the middle of March. Players also became frustrated because they didn’t believe Wittman held certain players, including John Wall and Nene, accountable enough. A leadership void in the locker room exacerbated the internal strife.
“One of my greatest disappointments is that we were not able to bring a championship to the great city of Washington, D.C.,” Wittman said in a statement released Thursday afternoon. “But through it all, I truly believe we have built a solid foundation and this team is headed in the right direction.”
On Wednesday, Wittman indicated that the team’s roster construction was a hindrance. Part of Grunfeld’s plan this season was to load the Wizards’ roster with players on expiring contracts to maximize cap room this offseason. Washington began the season with 11 looming free agents and ended with nine. Wittman said he had “never really seen” such a roster construction work in his three decades in the NBA.
Grunfeld minimized the repercussions, emphasizing “the players that carried most of the weight” didn’t fall in that category. He insisted there were many reasons for the Wizards’ failure. One of them, the franchise decided, was the coach.
“We want to get back to where we belong,” Grunfeld said. “We feel like we’re a playoff team and a team that when we get there we can do some damage. This year we didn’t accomplish that, and that’s disappointing.”