Considering the many lives that Ernie Grunfeld has already lived with the Washington Wizards, you have to put an asterisk next to the belief that this is the most important offseason of his tenure.
It should be. Grunfeld should be down to one final, dramatic chance to do right — one final, dramatic chance that his most vocal critics scream he doesn’t deserve. He has been the team’s top basketball executive for 13 years. He’s attempting to finish his third major overhaul. Grunfeld never has had a better hand in D.C., with an estimated $31 million in cap space when free agency begins Friday, to go with a young core led by John Wall that has had some playoff success. If Grunfeld can’t produce a true contender with these resources, he shouldn’t be protected by owner Ted Leonsis’s patience any longer.
Then again, similar words have been said about Grunfeld before, and he keeps surviving. In a baker’s dozen years here, he has made a baker’s baker’s dozen mistakes, eroding public patience and leading to cries of “Why does Ernie still have a job?” every time the Wizards stumble. But only the opinion of Leonsis matters, and the owner reiterated recently that Grunfeld remains in charge because he has done what Leonsis asked when he bought the team from the Pollin family six years ago: build a young core and create cap flexibility for a summer such as this one.
Perhaps if Grunfeld had arrived when Leonsis took over in 2010, there would be less skepticism about whether he’s worthy of another opportunity. But Grunfeld has been around since 2003. Only four other top NBA executives have lasted longer: Danny Ainge in Boston, R.C. Buford in San Antonio, Mitch Kupchak with the Los Angeles Lakers and Pat Riley in Miami. They’ve all built championship squads and been able to sustain success. The Wizards have a .423 winning percentage (444-606), five winning seasons and just six playoff appearances in Grunfeld’s 13 years.
Grunfeld has a chance to do more than survive this summer. But he has to nail the most lucrative and competitive free agency period in NBA history. In this market, there could be opportunities to make forward-thinking decisions such as signing Gilbert Arenas 13 years ago, which initially was an incredible move before his career took a controversial turn. For certain, there are opportunities to leave the franchise hamstrung by bad contracts, which has happened with Andray Blatche, Etan Thomas and others during Grunfeld’s tenure.
If you ask Grunfeld about any personal motivations in free agency, he won’t take the bait. He’s a pro that way. He has led the New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks and the Wizards over the past 27 years. He is 61 years old. In the past, he has made mistakes running his mouth, allowed a few work relationships to turn regrettably sour and seen just about everything that can happen in roster building. He knows enough to know this isn’t about him. He just wants to build a good team, to reward Leonsis for his faith. He’s pragmatic about the stakes.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Grunfeld said. “We don’t know exactly how this whole thing is going to go down. But you always have to have alternate plans. We know the kind of players that we like, but we don’t know exactly who’s going to be available to us, especially with the amount of money out there in the marketplace.”
The scary thing is that if the Wizards aren’t on their game, they could be stuck waiting for their primary option — ahem, Kevin Durant — while all of the good secondary options get taken. It’s easy to question Grunfeld’s decisions over the years, and to be fair, there isn’t a long-tenured team president who doesn’t have a laundry bag full of choices that can be judged harshly in hindsight. But if there’s one advantage to having Grunfeld in a summer as crazy as this one — a summer in which the salary cap is expected to rise from $70 million to $94 million, giving the nearly entire NBA cap flexibility — it’s his experience and connections.
Grunfeld, top aide Tommy Sheppard and the rest of the front office have good reputations with agents and throughout the league, and they should have honest conversations as they try to juggle many free agents. That shouldn’t be taken for granted. Some organizations don’t have that rapport, and the market will overwhelm them.
For those who wanted the Wizards to make a change this offseason out of frustration, it’s something to consider. It would’ve been a challenge for the Wizards to fire Grunfeld and his staff in April, bring in a fresh regime soon after and then have the new guys complete a plan that took years to develop. If Leonsis had fired everybody, the franchise might have been left with $31 million in cap space and no well-thought plan on how to spend it.
That said, Grunfeld still must prove he’s better than that alternative. When the Wizards devised this plan, they couldn’t have anticipated that the cap would rise so much that most of the league would be competing with them for the top free agents.
“Absolutely, this is going to be a new experience for everybody,” Grunfeld said. “Normally, three or four teams have max cap room to offer, and this year, there might be 15 or 16. Things are going to happen maybe quicker. Maybe they’re going to happen slower, and people are going to wait for the dominoes to fall. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to work out. But we’ll be ready, and we’ll make the calls that we need to make.”
You could consider them the most important calls of his Wizards tenure, but who knows with Grunfeld? He keeps living. He has this mysterious power to get influential people to believe that, despite past mistakes, hope still reigns. His survival instincts amaze and confound you.
But this is Grunfeld’s best chance to live better than month to month, year to year. This is his best chance to show that he was worth the patience, that he has learned plenty from previous disappointments.
Which is more powerful: the cynicism or the $31 million in resources?
Once again, Grunfeld’s basketball life depends on the answer.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.