Ernie Grunfeld lost his job during the last post-lockout season in 1999, when he made two controversial trades, for Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby, that failed to yield immediate results for the New York Knicks. Grunfeld was able to find some vindication when Sprewell and Camby went on to spark the Knicks’ surprising run to the NBA Finals later that season.
In an odd twist of fate, the NBA is in another lockout-shortened season, and Grunfeld finds himself in the final year of his contract as president of the Washington Wizards. With the Wizards (14-44) headed toward their fourth consecutive lottery appearance — and needing to win one more game to avoid the worst winning percentage in franchise history — several NBA executives and scouts have speculated that Grunfeld will not return to serve as architect of the rebuilding efforts.
One prominent agent said the Wizards job would be highly sought after if it became available and that there is “no way” Leonsis can bring back Grunfeld.
“Look, it’s a tough job,” the agent said. “But he’s had his shot.”
Despite the rumblings, Grunfeld remains confident about the direction of the organization and has not let the speculation about his future affect him.
“I’ve been in this business a long time,” said Grunfeld, whose current team will face his former team Friday at Madison Square Garden. “This has been a challenge, and we knew it was going to be a challenge when we got into it. I’m just working as hard as I can, to do the best job that I can.
“Those things will take care of themselves in the future as we move along.”
Owner Ted Leonsis has a policy of not discussing contract situations, but he also has consistently written glowingly positive blog posts about the team. He has compared the struggles of his first two years as owner of the Wizards to how the Capitals finished in last place in the division each of Alex Ovechkin’s first two seasons. And, in a recent post about the Wizards’ season-high-tying two-game winning streak, Leonsis praised the scouting department for drafting Kevin Seraphin and acquiring Jordan Crawford. He concluded, “We are making progress.”
Grunfeld certainly hasn’t acted like a man restricted from making important decisions that will affect the future of the franchise. He replaced Flip Saunders with Randy Wittman after a 2-15 start in late January and dealt former first-round draft picks JaVale McGee and Nick Young at the trade deadline to bring back 10-year veteran center Nene, who is owed $52 million over the next four years.
Though McGee and Young had been at the forefront of the rebuilding efforts the past two seasons, Grunfeld said trading them was still in accordance with the plan.
“The two players we traded for Nene, we got in the draft and we were able to combine them to get a player who would fit into what we were trying to do,” Grunfeld said. “We now have two positions that are covered, probably the two toughest positions to fill in the league: point guard and a big man.”
The trade also symbolized a culture shift for the organization, which was in need of more professionalism and serious-minded players after years of laughing through losing. Grunfeld said the addition of Nene gives the team “credibility” and would like to surround him and former No. 1 overall pick John Wall with more like-minded talent.
“We still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Grunfeld said. “But from what our game plan is, to get young players and build through the draft, that’s what we’re in the process of doing. We like our young core.”
One longtime NBA executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not at liberty to make public comments, said the Nene trade was “a step in the right direction” but felt that change was needed at the top.
“Nothing against Ernie, but he’s worked there for nine years and if you work for AT&T for nine years and the stock is dropping every day and you’re losing, guess what? The board of directors is getting rid of you. That’s the reality.
“The stock is falling in Washington.”
Wittman has gone 12-29 since replacing Saunders, and the Wizards are 5-12 since making the trade for Nene and Brian Cook. Grunfeld has worked closely with Leonsis since Leonsis became owner in June 2010 and followed his orders to accumulate draft picks and put the team in solid financial footing.
“It’s been hard, but we feel we’re positioned well now,” Grunfeld said. “We have good salary cap flexibility moving forward and we have pieces we can grow with and we’re developing more assets as we go along.”
Grunfeld has been one of the league’s highest-paid general managers for the past five years, with league sources estimating that he earns a salary between $3.5 million and $4.5 million. If he returns, it would likely be at a smaller salary, with owners seeking different ways to cut costs in recent years.
Since Grunfeld left Milwaukee to join the franchise in June 2003, the Wizards have posted a 278-436 record in his nine seasons. They made it to the playoffs four times, won one playoff round, but never finished with more than 45 wins in a season. The past four seasons have been especially rough, with them losing 222 of 304 games, which is easily the worst four-year stretch in franchise history.
Leonsis has said he wouldn’t judge Grunfeld based on decisions that were made under the previous ownership. Grunfeld has pulled off some stellar moves — dealing away Gilbert Arenas when few thought he could; acquiring Kirk Hinrich and the 17th overall pick (which turned out to be Seraphin) from Chicago and using Hinrich to get Crawford and the 18th pick (Chris Singleton) from Atlanta.
But he also made a major blunder in handing Andray Blatche a three-year, $28 million extension in September 2010 and watching him fall well short of expectations. Blatche was immovable at the trade deadline and he no longer travels with the team. If the Wizards are unable to move Blatche around the June 28 draft or later this summer, he stands as a likely candidate to be waived using the amnesty clause.
Grunfeld’s draft choices from last June — Singleton, Jan Vesely and Shelvin Mack — have also failed to make significant contributions despite considerable opportunities.
Grunfeld doesn’t know whether Leonsis will bring him back, but he said he still would like the chance to help the Wizards return to respectability — and beyond.
“I’m very competitive,” Grunfeld said. “Everyone would love to have a championship contender every year and I’ve been part of those situations. It’s fun to be there and hopefully, we can get back there in the near future.”