The Washington Wizards are nearly one-third through a lockout-shortened season that has been filled with more misery than comfort as it relates to their rebuilding plans.
Through 21 games, the Wizards have fired coach Flip Saunders, lost two of their most experienced players to serious injury, dealt with chemistry problems and bad body language and are losing at a pace that has them on course to set a new franchise record for worst winning percentage.
But President Ernie Grunfeld said he has no plans to abandon the long-term strategy of building through the draft and developing unseasoned talent. Dismissing Saunders less than two years after Grunfeld decided to dismantle the team he hired Saunders to coach altered the captain, but not the course.
“I think we’ve been pretty transparent,” Grunfeld said in a telephone interview. “We all knew it was going to be a process. Obviously, everyone would like to be a championship contender every year. But we’re in a different position and a different situation and we came up with a game plan and we’re going to follow through on that game plan.”
Grunfeld is in the final year of his contract with the Wizards and has compiled an overall record of 268-409 (.396) in nine seasons.
He helped build the Wizards into a playoff team, but after making four consecutive postseason appearances — and advancing to the second round once — the franchise has fallen on some hard times. Since the 2008-09 season, the Wizards are 72-195 (.270) and failed to win more than 26 games in any season.
Grunfeld was hired away from Milwaukee by Abe Pollin in 2003, but he has followed through on new owner Ted Leonsis’s orders to collect draft picks and prospects and keep the team financially stable. When asked about his future with the organization beyond this season, Grunfeld said, “I’m not concerned about that. I’m just concerned about doing the best job that we can do as an organization to put us in a position to be a competitive team for many years to come, and when we got into this process, we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy process for us. And we knew there were going to be some ups and downs and I think we’ve seen some good signs from our young players.”
New Coach Randy Wittman is the fourth coach the franchise has had in the past four seasons, and Grunfeld said he has noticed a difference in the energy level of the players since he made the change.
The team is 2-2 since Wittman took over and will face the Orlando Magic on Wednesday at Amway Center.
Grunfeld believed that the players had stopped listening to Saunders and he also wanted to establish a different identity for the team.
“Flip is a very good basketball man. He’s a good friend. It’s always very difficult, but I felt like at that point, we needed to get a different voice and do things a little different than we’ve been doing them,” Grunfeld said. “I think we’re playing a more uptempo style, offensively and defensively. We’re pressuring the ball more. We’re taking advantage of our size and our length and our athleticism, probably a little bit better than we had earlier.”
After having success in New York and Milwaukee, where his teams were annual playoff contenders, Grunfeld admitted that the struggles in recent years have tested his patience but haven’t forced him to lose sight of the bigger picture.
“I’m very competitive, as well as everybody else in our organization,” he said. “Nobody likes to lose. I’m glad about that. I don’t want our players to get used to that.”
The Wizards (4-17) would have to win at least 12 of their final 45 games to avoid finishing with the worst winning percentage in franchise history. If any team has experienced a setback from the lockout, it’s the Wizards, who have eight players on their roster in their first or second season, and nine players overall on their rookie contracts.
Grunfeld said the inability of the coaches to work with players in the summer and a shortened training camp made it difficult for the Wizards to establish the necessary continuity in the early part of the season. The team also had little time to make significant roster upgrades through trades or free agency, though that wasn’t necessarily the objective during the condensed signing period.
“We could’ve added a couple of players this offseason who would’ve given an extra five or six wins and get us in that seven or eight spot, but it would’ve taken away from the development of some of the young players that we currently have,” Grunfeld said. “We feel like, by our young players, getting this valuable playing time, it’s going to pay off for us in the future, and we’re going to be in a real good position to add some solid players to this roster, because of the salary cap flexibility that we have.”
The Wizards have not used their available cap space to sign any veteran free agent to more than a one-year deal. When asked when the team would actually spend the available money, Grunfeld said, “When we feel the right opportunity is there for us, when the right player is there for us, that can fit into what we’re trying to do, then we’ll be in position to make that move.”
Grunfeld added that despite his contract situation, he has not been prohibited from making deals that would potentially add salary going forward. “We can do whatever we feel is in the best interest of the team,” he said. “Obviously, when you make any type of move, the owner has final say. But Ted has been great. We work very closely together and he’s also been transparent about what this organization is trying to do and we’re moving forward with it.”
Could more alterations be on the way? “We’re always evaluating our situation. Of course you’re always looking for ways to improve your team as you move forward, but our overall plan has not changed,” Grunfeld said, adding that plan this season is “going to be judged by how we continue to improve and how we continue to play hard.”