The Warriors outlasted the Rockets in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals on Tuesday night, taking a commanding 2-0 series lead. Game 1 was controversial due to its (terrible) officiating. Game 2 was uneventful in comparison – despite Stephen Curry dislocating a finger and James Harden suffering a laceration above his left eye.
Those hiccups aside – not to downplay Harden’s eye, which could be an issue moving forward – the story was pretty simple: The two teams were even for about 38 minutes, but Golden State was dominant in the first 10, getting out to an early 12-point lead and never relinquishing control.
Houston threatened on multiple occasions, getting within one possession in the final frame, but it was ultimately too little too late. The Warriors won 115-to-109.
Thanks in large part to solid officiating, the words “landing space” will not appear again in this post (thank God). But speaking of referees, the same player who is as demonstrative with officials as anyone else – to the tune of a league-leading 31 technicals over the last two seasons – has reemerged as one of the NBA’s most unique and unlikely superstars: Draymond Green.
Draymond is an enigma. When he’s at his best, he’s the Warriors’ second most important player – behind either Steph or Kevin Durant (although KD has DEFINITELY been top dog lately). When he’s at his worst, he’s as cancerous as anyone in the league; missing wide open jumpers, turning the ball over, and destroying his team’s morale by constantly belittling the refs.
His fiery on court personality is easier to stomach when he’s performing at his peak, but that hasn’t been the case this season. Green averaged just 7.4 points in 2018-19, his lowest total since 2014, and shot 29% from three – his worst mark since his rookie campaign.
This was a concerning continuation of Draymond’s downward trend since Golden State’s 73-win squad in 2016. Green averaged a career high in basically everything that season – points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage – but he was especially impressive from deep, shooting a blistering 39%.
That last number has proven to be quite the anomaly. Since 2016, Green’s shooting just 30% from three.
His shooting was never thought to be a strong suit, so his return to earth from beyond the arc isn’t particularly alarming. Draymond’s jumper was just icing on the cake – his real value lies in his defense, rebounding and playmaking.
But the former Defensive Player of the Year’s offense was especially anemic this season. Green was second to last on his team in points per 100 possessions (a putrid 10.9), and he averaged just 1.05 points per shot attempt, according to Cleaning the Glass. That last number places him in the league’s 15th percentile – not exactly All-Star territory.
The playoffs have been a different story. Green is over 16 points per 100 possessions – a respectable figure – and he’s averaging a solid 1.16 points per attempt. He still can’t hit a three to save his life – he’s just 3-for-21 this postseason – but that’s okay. If Draymond is even passable as a scorer it’s a win thanks to his brilliance in every other facet of the game. That is, when he’s locked in.
And boy, has he been locked in so far this postseason.
After coasting through the first five games of Golden State’s opening round matchup with the surprisingly feisty Clippers, he was dominant in their Game 6, series-clinching win. That victory, coupled with his first two outings against Houston, has seen the Draymond of old return in full force to the tune of 15 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 blocks and a steal per game. Not to mention he’s shooting a blistering 64% from the field.
His stat-sheet stuffing amounts to impressive eye candy. It doesn’t even tell half the story.
Green has been the Warriors’ most important player not named Kevin Durant through the first couple games of the second round. The reason is pretty simple: he’s just as effective when he’s a man up as when he’s a man down. This probably doesn’t make sense yet, so bear with me as I further confuse you: the exact thing that makes Draymond so valuable on offense – especially against Houston – is what he’s elite at stopping on defense.
Offensively, Green is the Warriors’ most prolific playmaker. He’s adept at attacking defenses that are overly focused on Golden State’s historically elite marksmen.
In this upcoming clip, Draymond runs a high screen and roll with Steph Curry. Steph is, as you may know, the greatest shooter ever, so he garners a lot of attention – even 40 feet from the basket.
Gerald Green – guarding Curry – and Harden – guarding Draymond – switch the pick, as Houston always does on screens. But Gerald Green has to linger on Curry for a moment too long as Harden slides over. Steph makes a slick pass to Draymond who attacks the defense immediately, leading to this easy lob pass to Iguodala:
Earlier I mentioned that Green was elite at playing with a “man up.” This sort of play is what I was referring to.
After receiving the pass from Steph, Draymond acts decisively and his man doesn’t have a chance to get back into the play. PJ Tucker and Chris Paul are stuck on the weak side wing (the side without the ball) guarding two all-world shooters – Thompson and Durant – so they won’t be much help, and it comes down to Draymond and Iguodala against a single defender: Eric Gordon.
Gordon can either step up here and concede a lob, or hang back and give up a drive. He chooses the former, and Draymond makes him pay with a nifty alley-oop to Iguodala, converting on what amounts to a two-on-one half court fast break. Green is assisting on 27.3% of his teammates’ made field goals when he’s on the floor. That figure places him in elite company.
This is all incredibly impressive, but here’s where Draymond goes from “yeah, he’s pretty good” to “oh my God there’s no one like this dude.”
Remember earlier how I said Draymond is elite at stopping on defense what he’s good at doing on offense? This last play is exactly what I mean, because Green often excels when placed in Eric Gordon’s exact position.
The Warriors switch everything on defense. When they deploy their “Hampton 5” lineup – Draymond, Steph, KD, Klay, Iguodala – this is largely doable thanks to the lineup’s versatility. They do have a weak link, though: Steph Curry.
As I mentioned in my last piece, the Rockets hunt down a switch onto the two-time MVP on virtually every possession. With all due respect to the greatest shooter ever, he gets beat A LOT.
When the Warriors play the Hampton 5, Draymond is often guarding the opposing center – Clint Capela in this case, one of the best lob-finishers in the NBA. And when the inevitable happens, and Steph’s man beats him, Green is in the same position Eric Gordon was in above, on the wrong end of a two-on-one advantage.
I’ll allow the best NBA writer on the planet, Zach Lowe, to summarize why this isn’t the worst thing in the world:
You can see that sort of trickery in this next clip. Gordon beats Curry and has a two-on-one with Capela against Green. Draymond inches ever-so-slightly towards Gordon, goading him into the lob to Capela, but he recovers in time to get a hand on the pass. Something he did routinely this past season, as he was top-ten in the NBA in deflections.
The degree of difficulty here is subtle, but there’s really no other defender in the NBA who consistently makes these sorts of plays:
If you watch the clip to the end, you’ll see that Draymond gets a dunk after rolling to the rim following a ball screen for Klay. Similar to with Steph, Thompson attracts two defenders. Nobody steps up this time.
On one end, Green’s a man down and forces a tough pass. On the other, he’s a man up and gets an easy bucket.
It’s not always pretty, but it sure is effective. Draymond has his imprints all over this series through two games.
James Harden is my favorite athlete.
I used to qualify that statement, adding in some sort of disclaimer like: Harden’s my favorite NBA athlete, or Harden’s my favorite current athlete, or Harden’s my favorite bearded athlete.
I recently removed the qualifications. I have never rooted for an athlete as much as I do for Harden and his herky-jerky basketball wizardry.
Here’s the issue Harden and his loyal following are running into (once again): he’s just not the same in the playoffs. His per game numbers are way down – 36/7/8 in the regular season (point/rebounds/assists) versus 29/6/8 during the playoffs.
His efficiency is even more concerning: 44/37/87 shooting splits during the regular season (field goal %/three point %/Free throw %), and a putrid 36/33/88 in the playoffs so far.
This season was supposed to be different. Before his lackluster start to the playoffs, it looked like Harden was poised to finally flip the narrative on his postseason struggles because of a new weapon he added to his robust offensive arsenal: a floater.
Before the 2018-19 campaign, Harden had two primary scoring options from the field: pull up from three or blow by his defender and get to the basket. This left a gaping hole in his offensive game that savvy defenses would exploit, as they’d often give him open looks from 10ish feet that he would be hesitant to take in Mike D’Antoni’s analytically-driven offense that advocates for three shots: threes, layups, and free throws.
The Rockets finally realized that Harden needed to be able to make defenses pay for giving him room within 10 feet of the basket, and he added in his lethal floater.
Per Cleaning the Glass, Harden made 140 shots from between 4 and 14 feet this year at a solid 46% clip. He only made 143 shots from that distance COMBINED in the two seasons prior, while shooting a well-below-average 36%.
Adding in a floater has somehow elevated Harden’s offensive skillset. It hasn’t just eliminated a weakness that defenses were exploiting, but it also makes his lob passes to Clint Capela – the Rockets’ bouncy center – even more deadly (if that’s possible).
When Harden stopped short of the basket while driving in previous years, it was almost always a lob or a kick out to a teammate on the perimeter – now it’s not so simple, as he has a new weapon to deploy. Add in the fact that his lobs and floaters look almost identical at their release point and he’s basically un-guardable when his new shot is falling.
Thanks in large part to Harden’s own developments, Capela had the best season of his career in 2018-19 – averaging 16.6 points and 12.7 rebounds. Harden averaged 3.3 assists to Capela per game this past regular season, accounting for almost half of his made shots.
During the playoffs, Capela’s scoring has dipped to under 10 a night. This might not seem like it’s related to Harden’s shooting struggles, but it most definitely is, as we’ll see in a second.
Despite Harden’s improvement from the shorter midrange area, that is still the shot defenses are willing to concede. In the playoffs, this calculated gamble has paid off.
Harden shot an efficient 47% from between 3-and-10 feet during the regular season, per basketball reference. During the playoffs, Harden is shooting just 22 percent from that same area. Yikes.
Against the Jazz in the first round – which was much closer than it’s 4-1 result indicates – Rudy Gobert, Utah’s dominant paint protector, took advantage of Harden’s struggles by committing to him later and later on his floaters as the series went on. Utah was quite literally playing BEHIND Harden on the perimeter, taking away his step back three and begging him to drive into the area he had worked so hard to improve:
Harden’s struggles with his floater allowed Gobert to hang back on Capela – who is often positioned on the baseline in what’s known as the “dunker spot” – virtually taking him out of the series. Capela averaged more makes per game during the regular season than he did attempts per game against the Jazz in the opening round.
Capela once again struggled in Game 1 against the Warriors. This wasn’t altogether surprising, though, as Golden State’s defensive approach is basically the antithesis of Utah’s.
The Jazz wanted to send Harden into the paint and force him to either hit his floater or find his teammates. The Warriors play him straight up and switch every screen, allowing him to isolate one-on-one, but try to take away his playmaking – especially to Capela – by limiting the sort of blow-by opportunities he had against Utah.
Harden should be feasting on the isolations he’s getting against Golden State’s defense. But through one game, he’s not, as he shot just 9-for-28, despite finishing with 35 points.
The Rockets want to isolate Harden on the Warriors’ weakest defender – Stephen Curry. According to Kirk Goldsberry at ESPN, Steph was switched onto Harden 83 times during last year’s West Finals. That is 57 more than the next closest player.
Despite his shortcomings as an on-ball stopper, Curry did a great job of showing hard when his man screened for Harden this past Sunday – “showing” basically means just lunging at the ball for a second – and then recovering quickly to his original assignment. Houston would send Harden through multiple picks within the same possession in order to get their desired matchup, but often times, even if they did get the mismatch with Steph, it was too little too late and Harden was forced into a tough, late-clock chuck. The Rockets had a couple shot clock violations, and seemed to be in a perpetual scramble to get any sort of shot off on multiple possessions.
Houston needs to get into its offense quicker. But this is not even close to the biggest headline that emerged from Game 1.
It is now time to address the giant zebra-colored elephant in the room: the officiating.
It doesn’t take a hell of a lot of digging to see that Harden doesn’t get the same calls in the postseason. The skilled contact-initiator (this is a nice way of saying “flopper”) is averaging 2.5 less free throws per game during the playoffs than he was in the regular season.
The Rockets’ analytically-minded General Manager, Daryl Morey, has taken his analysis a couple steps further.
Morey has built his roster around the Freedom of Movement rules that has caused scoring to increase across the board as players have greater room to operate and an easier time getting to the line. No one has benefited more from these rule adjustments than Harden – except in the postseason.
Morey has been adamant about what he views as Golden State being on the receiving end of far too many favorable calls. The Rockets studied the referees closely in their Western Conference Finals matchup with the Warriors last season, and Houston determined that they were harmed to the tune of 93 points over seven games, per Sam Amick at The Athletic.
Earlier today, even more buzz was created after a Rockets report from their Game 7 loss to the Warriors last year revealed what they determined to be 81 missed calls and non-calls going against them.
A lot of these contentious calls revolve around the ambiguous “landing space” rules the NBA has for its shooters, which became more prevalent after Kawhi Leonard rolled his ankle on a dangerously placed Zaza Pachulia foot. You can see that play below:
In Game 1 between Houston and Golden State this past Sunday the same rule was once again brought to the forefront. Chris Paul and Harden felt they were on the wrong end of numerous missed calls where their landing space was infiltrated.
Here’s a compilation of a few Klay Thompson closeouts on Harden from Sunday. All of them look like fouls, with the final contest being especially egregious:
One of the more compelling rivalries the NBA has today is quickly becoming defined by officiating, which is too bad. But judging by the evidence, even if you put aside the Rockets’ obviously biased research, their legitimate gripes cannot be ignored.
If Houston – and Harden more specifically – was officiated Sunday the way they were all regular season they walk out of Oakland with a double-digit victory as opposed to a four-point loss. In his post-game presser Harden implored the refs to “call the game the way it’s supposed to be called.” You know, the way they’ve been calling it since October.
Harden struggling with his shiniest new toy – his floater – is probably the biggest reason why his postseason-choker narrative is persisting through the first game of the second round. But the poor officiating is no doubt playing a role in his struggles as well.
The Rockets and their MVP are a historically difficult team to officiate. Their offensive possessions often devolve into flailing limbs and glares at the officials. Daryl Morey’s complaining isn’t helping either. So-called basketball “purists” already despise his innovative approach to team building, and his embarrassingly biased referee reports aren’t helping his cause. (Despite my mentioning his studies above, they are pretty ridiculous. Basketball is not, and never will be, officiated by robots, which Morey seems to want.)
I understand that the optics of their play isn’t always thrilling. A lot of the pushback they’re getting stems from their aesthetically indifferent style.
Refs swallow their whistles around the basket in the playoffs, and that’s fine. But every Klay Thompson contest above – in addition to a couple others that aren’t shown – are fouls. This series is too important – and too compelling – to be decided by the officials. Right now, they’re playing far too big a role in the outcome.
I almost did a column on the worst moves of the Ernie Grunfeld era but that would have meant writing a piece longer than Moby Dick, which I’m still working through in preparation for a 2011 ninth grade English exam. So far I know that there’s a whale, and that the whale serves as a metaphor for mankind’s maniacal obsession with revenge, and that we’ll channel all of our suffering onto the thing we’re seeking vengeance from, and OH MY GOD Moby Dick might be an allegory for Wizards fans’ hatred of Ernie Grunfeld, except he is more deserving of our resentment than is the whale. (And now you’re wondering: Did this guy actually read Moby Dick? And I’ve got you right where I want you.)
Putting America’s favorite fictional sperm whale to the side for a moment, and focusing in on its metaphorical DC Sports equivalent, Ernie Grunfeld was canned on April 2nd, 2019. It was a day of hope, celebration, and, above all else, reflection, because how exactly did he last 16 years?
Before exploring all the ways by which Ernie tried to ruin my childhood – if it’s not clear by now, I should note that I’m a native Washingtonian and a diehard Wizards fan – it is worth mentioning that Grunfeld wasn’t exactly taking over a top-tier franchise when he arrived in D.C.
In the 15 seasons prior to Ernie’s 16-year tenure, the Wizards made a single playoff appearance, losing in the first round in 1997. They won 40 games just twice between 1988 and 2003. For those of you unfamiliar with basketball, I’ll simplify things: they sucked.
Ernie was hired in June 2003 – the same month the Cavaliers drafted a guy you might’ve heard of: LeBron James – and brought with him a solid reputation. He oversaw two Knicks teams that made Finals trips, and he also helped revitalize a struggling Bucks squad in the late 90s.
So, overall, this looked like an okay hire. Ernie had experience turning around struggling franchises, and the Wizards were ready for a fresh start in the post-Michael Jordan era.
At first, things went well (by D.C. sports standards). Washington made the playoffs every season from 2005 to 2008, and built a solid core around three all-stars: Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison. They kept running into a young LeBron in the postseason, losing to him and the Cavs three times during the Arenas-era, but Gilbert was still in his mid-20s. There was no rush.
And then things fell apart.
(For what it’s worth, the following is NOT Ernie’s fault.)
In April 2007, towards the end of another stellar All-NBA season, Arenas tore his meniscus. He missed the rest of the year.
He returned in time for the beginning of the following season, but quickly re-injured the same knee, undergoing a second procedure in seven months.
Arenas would come back at the end of the 2008 season, but he was a shell of his former self. From 2005 to 2007, Arenas averaged 27.7 points in 234 games with Washington. Over the three seasons following the initial knee injury (the 2008 season through 2010), he averaged 21.3 points over just 47 games.
Now, brace yourself, because the following IS Ernie’s fault (as is basically everything else for the rest of the column):
In July 2008, Grunfeld signed Arenas, fresh off of TWO KNEE SURGERIES, to a 6-year, $111 Million contract. Arenas played in just two games during the 2009 season, 32 in 2010 (the season he infamously brought guns into the locker room to intimidate a teammate over a gambling debt), and was dealt to Orlando by 2011. The Wizards didn’t pay off the last of his contract until 2016. Sports Illustrated called it the worst deal in NBA history.
While the Arenas contract is the easiest move to point to as the telltale sign of Grunfeld’s incompetence, it is really just the beginning in a long line of blunders that have prevented the Wizards from ever becoming a serious championship contender. Washington still hasn’t won 50 games since 1979 – the same year that Kramer vs Kramer somehow beat out Breaking Away for Best Picture at the Oscars.
The next inexplicable move was in 2009 when Ernie traded the fifth overall pick (Stephen Curry was drafted seventh that year), along with a bunch of dudes you’ve never heard of as salary filler (although shout out to Etan Thomas), for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. Instead of trying to accumulate young assets, Grunfeld traded the pick away for mediocre-to-bad veteran depth.
This was a recurring theme during the Ernie era. He routinely traded away first round picks for overwhelmingly average veterans.
He did it again in 2016, trading a lottery pick for Markieff Morris. Then in 2017, when he had to attach a first-rounder to the abominable Andrew Nicholson contract in order to offload the slow-footed big man, just to get less than half a season of Bojan Bogdanovic. Bo-Bo bolted DC in free agency a few months later since the Wizards always refuse to go over the luxury tax – and avoiding that penalty is maybe the one thing Grunfeld WAS good at.
Ernie’s draft incompetence extended out into the second round as well, seeing as how he gave away second round picks like they were Oprah goodie bags. (YOU GET A PICK! AND YOU GET A PICK! AND YOU GET A PICK!)
They traded away their 2014 second-round selection for cash considerations, had ZERO picks in 2016 and 2017, and Washington already gave away, or might lose, their 2019, 2020, and 2021 second rounders. So much for rebuilding.
This isn’t to say that Ernie has never succeeded in the draft, as taking Wall number one in 2010 was a solid, yet obvious, choice, and Beal at three in 2012 has proven to be a good selection as well. But the core developed outside of the two all-stars has been laughable. And it all comes back to the fateful summer of 2016, the one christened by DC sports fans in the years leading up to it as the summer of “KD2DC.”
Durant was entering free agency following his ninth year in the NBA, and given his DMV roots many Wizards fans assumed, based on literally nothing, that he would consider returning home.
Washington didn’t even get a meeting with their supposed savior.
At the end of the day, KD2DC was a fan-driven construct concocted in NBA Reddit threads. But regardless of whether or not the front office ever thought they had a chance at the 2014 MVP, they hinged all their hopes on 2016 free agency. For better or worse, Ernie and co. decided they were going to blow all of their money and hold the organization financially hostage for the foreseeable future.
This wasn’t a phenomenon occurring solely in the nation’s capitol, as teams around the league were spending their cash freely after the cap jumped from around $70 Million in the summer of 2015 to over $90 million the following year.
So the Wizards, along with the rest of the league, had cap space – a lot of it. And they weren’t going to get Durant. Fine. They had a contingency plan: All-Star free agent Al Horford.
One of the more versatile bigs in the league, Horford wasn’t going to win MVPs anytime soon like Durant already did, but he was nonetheless the sort of blue color, defensive-minded, pass-first center that would fit perfectly next to Beal and Wall.
Washington almost had him. They were so close. According to David Aldridge, 24 hours prior to inking a deal with Boston, Horford supposedly had his mind made up on DC for an instant.
So, what now? Washington’s been hoarding cap space since they let Trevor Ariza walk in 2014, planning to make a splash in 2016 free agency, and the one big name that they had any shot at signing is going to Boston.
I’ll tell you what happens now: Ernie Grunfeld happens.
Ernie gives $106 Million combined to Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith. You could be an NBA scout and still have minimal familiarity with any of these guys. For all I know they were involved in the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal and just picked up basketball as an extracurricular to get into better schools.
Nicholson’s fate was covered earlier – after half a season they had to package him with a first rounder just to offload his disastrous deal. He hasn’t played in the NBA in two years.
Jason Smith averaged five points per game in three-and-a-half years in DC. He is not currently on an NBA roster either.
Ian Mahinmi – who’s by far the highest paid of the group at four years, $64 Million – has averaged five points and four rebounds over three seasons with Washington. He has failed to reach 40 games played in two of those years.
The Wizards did extend Bradley Beal in 2016 – to the tune of five years, $128 Million – which has looked like a solid contract given his All-NBA level play this season, but they gave another max extension to a less deserving player the following summer: Otto Porter.
Due in large part to their idiotic expenditures the previous year, Washington had no way to acquire new talent through free agency in 2017, even if they didn’t re-sign Porter. They found themselves trapped, with no real choice but to match the Nets’ four-year, $106 Million offer sheet to the restricted free agent, keeping him in D.C.
After the huge cap jump in 2016, things started to level off by 2017, when Porter was signed. There wasn’t as much money to throw around, and Washington found itself suffocated by its previous contracts, unable to maneuver in any way to clear up substantial cap space.
Porter, the third overall pick in 2013, was dealt this past February to the Bulls for two expiring contracts and a second round pick. Sure, Washington was able to get out of his ridiculous deal, but the situation in itself is a microcosm of the Ernie Grunfeld tenure: the front office digs itself into a hole, and then expects a pat on the back when they dig themselves out of it.
But it’s not like they come out of their metaphorical ditch any better off, or having learned anything from their mistakes. They just keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, which, I’m pretty sure, is the definition of insanity.
Offloading Porter’s contract was a good thing. Getting rid of the Nicholson deal was a win. Shedding Jason Smith’s salary was necessary. But the question isn’t whether or not the salary dumps were successful, the question is: why in the hell were they holding themselves financially hostage year after year, with no clear plan other than to tread water until the next disaster needs to be averted?
And, speaking of that next disaster, it’s coming a little sooner than you may think.
John Wall signed a four-year, $170 Million max extension the same summer Porter inked his deal. Wall was coming off the best season of his career, making an All-NBA team. Given the lack of free agent attention Washington garners, the move seemed necessary.
But now, a couple years later, the signing officially looks like a train wreck. The deal doesn’t kick in until next season, and Wall will miss AT LEAST the first 50ish games of the contract with a ruptured Achilles. Wall, a point guard reliant on his explosiveness, could very well be 30 the next time he suits up for the Wizards, coming off a notoriously difficult injury to rehab from. If he does come back struggling, it will be a difficult pill to swallow given the fact that he is owed between $37 and $46 Million in 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023.
It’s easy to say that the Wizards had to extend Wall, as he was coming off an All-NBA season, but the same team that knocked Washington out of the 2017 playoffs – the Boston Celtics – entered the following year with an entirely new core; and this was done completely by choice.
The Celtics only retained one starter from opening night in 2017 to their first game in 2018. They even traded away their MVP candidate, Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 29 points in his final year with Boston. The Celtics had foresight that Washington has never had in understanding that yes, they can trot out the same team again and end up in a similar spot, but a pre-finals exit was their best case scenario under their current construction. They wanted to be great; the Wizards always settle with good enough.
If Wall doesn’t return to form, a strong case can be made that Ernie doled out four of the worst contracts in NBA history: Wall, Arenas, Porter and Mahinmi. Yet, somehow, he stuck around for 16 years – the fourth longest tenured GM in the league behind Danny Ainge, Pat Riley, and R.C. Buford. He’s the only one of the four who hasn’t won an NBA championship; Grunfeld never even made the Conference Finals in D.C. The other three all average at least 45 wins a season. Ernie averaged less than 38.
Here’s the craziest part about all of this: I’m leaving so much horrible stuff out.
There was trading away a first round pick acquired from Memphis for Mike James and Javaris Crittenton in 2008. Then there was giving Andray Blatche a $35 Million extension, shortly before he was benched for poor conditioning. And, one-upping himself yet again, Grunfeld then took Jan Vesely fifth overall in 2011, which can be traced DIRECTLY back to Ernie because the Wizards’ head coach at the time, Flip Saunders, reportedly wanted to select the still-available Klay Thompson.
Even just rewinding nine months back to the summer reveals multiple blunders. The most notable signing was Dwight Howard. He’s played in just nine games. Marcin Gortat was swapped for Austin Rivers. Rivers is now on the Rockets. And let us not forget the 2018 first round pick that was spent on Troy Brown Jr., a teenager who plays the same position as the Wizards’ 2013 first rounder (Porter) and 2015 top pick (Kelly Oubre Jr.). Both Porter and Oubre have since been dealt away from D.C., the latter for a veteran wing (Trevor Ariza) that was supposed to help with a playoff push that never came close to materializing.
Oh and, by the way, Ted Leonsis gave Grunfeld an “A” offseason grade for the moves laid out in that last paragraph. Seriously. It was a classy gesture by Leonsis to grade on such a generous curve.
So, where the hell do we go from here? (And so much for keeping this shorter than Moby Dick.)
Rebuilding is basically off the table given the $170 Million owed to Wall through 2023, and Beal is entering the prime of his career, coming off a stellar season, and could be entitled to his own super-max extension if he makes an All-NBA team this year, which is very possible.
I love Beal. He’s one of the more entertaining players to compete in any D.C. sport in my lifetime. But signing him to another max extension would be disastrous.
Best-case scenario if Beal is retained: Wall comes back at 100% and the Wizards make… what? The playoffs a few more times? Maybe a conference final? Is there any real chance they compete for an Eastern Conference title with Giannis and the Bucks in the mix? Or Kawhi and the Raptors? Or Embiid, Simmons and the 76ers? Or Kyrie, Tatum, a healthy Gordon Hayward, Brad Stevens and the Celtics? Let’s not even entertain what would happen in a potential finals matchup with the Warriors, since getting that far is a pipedream anyway.
In order to build a contender, you have to be willing to bottom out – just ask the 76ers. Philadelphia averaged less than 19 wins per season from 2013 to 2017. Now they’re wrapping up a second consecutive 50-win season, and feature an MVP candidate (Joel Embiid) and a rising superstar (Ben Simmons). They were also able to swap some of their assets for a third All-Star (Jimmy Butler), as well as one of the NBA’s premier role players (Tobias Harris).
Ernie was fired this season, according to Owner Ted Leonsis’s April 2nd press release, because Washington didn’t make the playoffs; this revelation scared me. Not making the postseason, and getting a top-ten pick, is what the Wizards need to be doing right now. Ernie’s job should have been just as vulnerable during one of the many years when Washington was winning games in the low-to-mid 40s, with no clear road to getting appreciably better.
Grunfeld is gone, but Leonsis’ statement makes it clear that he wasn’t the only problem. Carving out a path to the playoffs next season will come at the expense of building towards any sort of realistic championship contention moving forward. I want the Wizards to be consistently bad more than I want them to be consistently mediocre. The former is risky, but could lead somewhere special. The latter means more of the same, and I think the entire fan base is ready for something new. Getting rid of Ernie was an important first step, but it’s just the beginning of what should be, and needs to be, a complete overhaul of Washington Wizards basketball.
I’m pretty sure I’m a millennial. I’m not sure if I actually make the cut-off that would allow me to proclaim myself a millennial, but I wear the moniker proudly because I embody all of their stereotypes: I’m always on my phone, I have to Shazam any song that was released before 2000 (if you don’t know what Shazam is, congratulations; you’re not a millennial), and I have a genuine affection for avocado toast.
Despite the many ways in which my millennial counterparts and I see eye-to-eye, we have one major divergence: baseball.
Millennials don’t like baseball for the same reason that they don’t like having dinner with their parents (except for you, mom and dad): it takes too long. In a sports landscape dominated by tweetable moments – dunks, big hits, crazy catches, ankle-breaking crossovers, more dunks – baseball is sorely lacking in highlights. The best Sportscenter material the game offers is diving catches where the outfielder really might not have had to dive.
The average age of a baseball fan is 57; up five years since 2000. By most any metric you can find, America’s pastime is quickly becoming, well, just that: an artifact of the country’s past, as sports like basketball and football dominate the present, and soccer looks like the most likely competitor to their cultural dominance in the future.
Baseball is in a dangerous place. If it doesn’t act prudently, it could quickly become a relic of a bygone era, a time before light-saber fighting was a sport (this is really a thing).
As we move towards Opening Day on March 28th, a date I still look forward to (even though my millennial friends swear that I’m kidding), I thought it would be appropriate to look back on the 2019 MLB offseason and figure out how exactly baseball is responding to its decreasing popularity. In other words, judging by the precarious position the game finds itself in, what is helping baseball re-establish its important position in the American sports landscape, and what isn’t?
(WARNING: This is basically three columns in one so, if you feel the need to space them out in between episodes of Queer Eye – THE NEW SEASON JUST DROPPED – I completely understand.)
Helping: Bryce Harper
Not Helping: Mike Trout
I wrote about Bryce and his new contract at length here, so feel free to check out my thoughts on the deal if you’re interested.
Harper was the highest paid player in MLB history for a couple of weeks, before Mike Trout destroyed his record-setting deal in terms of both total value and per-year pay, with a 12-year, $426.5 Million contract.
This makes a lot of sense. Trout and Harper came into the MLB at the same time, are very close to each other in age, and even though they’ll always be compared because of their parallel timelines, Trout should be getting significantly more money because he’s significantly better.
Since entering the league full-time in 2012, Trout has posted an absurd, Babe-Ruth level 64.2 WAR (wins above replacement); far and away the best number in the MLB. Over that same stretch, Harper has posted a WAR of 30.5. Bryce has one season where his WAR eclipses nine. Trout has FIVE such seasons.
So, Mike Trout is better. There is no question about it.
But, here’s the catch: while Trout might be better at baseball, Harper is better for baseball.
Trout has a couple things going against him in the marketability department. His first hiccup isn’t exactly his fault, and doesn’t make a lot of sense at first glance, but bear with me here: even though he’s playing in Los Angeles, he’s competing in an unfavorable market.
Now, you’re probably thinking: Los Angeles, the second biggest city in the U.S., is an unfavorable market? That doesn’t make any sense!
Great point and question.
While the city itself might be a great sports market, a different LA baseball team is the recipient of most of the city’s business and attention: The Dodgers.
The Angels’ cross-town rival has a million things going for it that Mike Trout and company does not. The Dodgers are, historically, one of the biggest names in baseball; point one. They have made it to two consecutive World Series (Trout’s never won a playoff game); point two. On average, over the last five years, they’ve spent roughly $80 Million more annually, boasting a historically hefty payroll; point three. Their ownership group features some major star power, including Magic Johnson; point four. The Angels’ most recent TV deal was worth $3 Billion over 20 years. The Dodgers’ is worth over $8 Billion (!!!) over 25 years; point five.
Okay, I can keep going, but I’ll leave it there. While one of the most talented players ever racks up historically great seasons as easily as Thanos does infinity stones (this is an Avengers reference and shame on you for not getting it), he has to face the fact that he’s doing it on the second most popular team in his city.
Beyond the Dodgers dilemma, Trout also faces an annoyingly notable issue in that he’s just not particularly charismatic. The New York Times did a profile on him last year entitled: “Baseball’s Best, Without the Brand.” The LA Times had one called: “‘Just Mike’ Trout is Angels’ leader by example.” You don’t have to read past the heading to get the gist of the problem.
Baseball’s best player – given the most boring nickname possible by his local newspaper: “Just Mike” – doesn’t care about being its best salesman. Arguably the most talented player ever couldn’t have picked a worse time to come along, when the MLB needs its stars to be marketable more than ever.
In steps Bryce Harper.
While he doesn’t necessarily come across as the most gregarious of people, he does have a certain swagger about him that makes him polarizing – which is a good thing. A recent poll at the Athletic asked MLB players to rank their fellow competitors in a variety of different categories, the most lopsided of which was “most overrated.” Bryce won handily.
Harper is good enough, outspoken enough, and prominent enough as to where he is worthy of both admiration and hate. Having detractors comes with the territory when you’re the face of a major sports league; just ask LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Tom Brady, or even Aaron Rodgers.
Harper uses bats with emoji’s painted on. He flips those bats almost as routinely as he flips his hair. He wasn’t afraid to stare down Cole Hamels after stealing home as a 19-year-old rookie. Bryce even has some memorable sound bites:
Harper definitely isn’t the best player in baseball, but he is its most recognizable figure. Trout will probably put up another historic season with the Angels in 2019, and, for an eighth straight year, I doubt anyone notices.
Bryce looks to be in position to have a renaissance with the Phillies and, honestly, the MLB needs him to. A league is much better off when its most recognizable player is also one of it best.
Helping: Free Agency
Not Helping: Extensions
Any press is good press. I’m not sure Bill Belichick’s curmudgeonly media-hating personality would agree with this but, nevertheless, that’s how the saying goes.
The MLB was getting a lot of press this past offseason because of the indecision, and lack of a market, its two most notable free agents experienced: Bryce Harper (who I feel like I’m mentioning 11 times per column) and Manny Machado.
Their late signings perturbed a lot of baseball fans, and some of this anxiety was justified. The lack of a market for two of the game’s brightest stars, specifically among baseball’s giants – The Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and Dodgers – is alarming.
But their drawn-out free agencies represented the most coverage the MLB has had in a long time. I can’t remember any baseball-related story that was as widely covered as Harper and Machado’s free agency.
This speaks to a larger point, which is that free agency is really good for league notoriety. The NBA is successful because of its plethora of young stars and the fact that it’s tailor made for the Internet age, but it’s also so popular because it’s a 12-month league.
When the season ends, free agency begins just a few weeks later, and NBA fans follow the different moves closely on Twitter. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that, in a way, the NBA is responsible for the boon in sports coverage on social media.
The NBA also undergoes a ton of roster turnover each summer. This is a good thing. Free agency isn’t exciting because players sign with teams; it’s exciting because they often change teams. This isn’t happening as often right now in baseball.
Over the last month, after all the attention shifted away from the two notable free agent signings, an INSANE amount of top MLB stars – a lot of whom would’ve been free agents next summer – signed extensions with their current teams. This includes, but isn’t limited to, the following names: Trout, Jacob deGrom, Kyle Hendricks, Justin Verlander, Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Sale, Blake Snell, Alex Bregman, and Nolan Arenado.
All of these deals took place in the last six weeks, and I’m leaving a number of extensions out. (It’s also worth mentioning that two of the top 2019 free agent pitchers remain unsigned: Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel.)
This is boring. The tense, anxiety-inducing dance fans and front offices partake in during the free agency of top players is half the fun of rooting for sports teams; extensions eliminate that.
Players locking into deals early could be a byproduct of fears over a possible labor stoppage in 2021, when the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires, and they also might have been scared off from the open market by the troubles Machado and Harper faced this past offseason.
Their legitimate reasons for re-signing early aside, this boon in extensions is bad for baseball. There is very little to talk about when players extend existing contracts, because it essentially means more of the same, and it highlights the unfair power dynamic between owners and players (more on this last point in a second).
Helping: Young Studs
Not Helping: Service Time
There are four especially promising rookies who all look poised to have strong year one showings: Vladimir Guerrero Jr (Blue Jays), Fernando Tatis Jr (Padres), Eloy Jimenez (White Sox), and Victor Robles (Nationals).
So, this is great, right? There’s a lot of young talent in baseball and they’ll all be playing on Opening Day.
Not so fast.
Because of the MLB’s ridiculous service time rules, some of these players may begin the season in the Minors so that their teams can hold on to their contracts for an extra year.
Service time rules are basically this: 172 days of service time – or days spent with the big league club – out of a possible 187 constitutes an MLB season. If you fall short of this mark as a first-year player, teams don’t have to count that first season as the first year of your major league experience and, as a result, the time clock on the years until you enter free agency hasn’t actually started.
Players are eligible for free agency after six years of MLB service (which is ridiculous in itself). But, if you’re brought up more than 15 days after Opening Day during your first year as an MLBer, you technically don’t start your first year with the Big League team until the following season. (This is all way too confusing, I know.)
Point blank: this is stupid. All it does is push off talented players’ impending free market possibilities, and it forces them to take a pay cut for an extra year (although they are eligible for arbitration in years four-through-six – but even this is put off because of service time restrictions). This strategy will be employed with at least one star this Spring – Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – who is CLEARLY ready for the big leagues judging by his on-base percentages of .449 and .414 in AA and AAA respectively last year.
While this particular rule is ludicrous, it speaks to the MLB’s larger issue: these sorts of rules need to change, but it takes WAY TOO LONG for anything to happen. Baseball’s traditionalist attitude is preventing its modernization, and as a result driving away younger fans.
Right now, there is a clear power imbalance in baseball between owners and players. The absence of a salary cap has led to some astronomical figures in MLB deals over the last couple decades, especially in comparison to other sports that do have caps, but as television revenue rises and leagues become more and more profitable across the board, baseball deals are looking less and less impressive in comparison.
This might seem counter-intuitive judging by Trout’s recent near-half-billion-dollar deal, but that contract in itself is indicative of the problem. The marker has been set for what the top player in the game is making, so now all other deals will fall in line below that. In a sense, the Angels’ star set an unofficial salary cap with his signing.
Coupling this with the hesitancy owners showed in getting involved in the free agent market, there is going to be a clear urgency among players moving forward to sign extensions before entering free agency. Owners can take advantage of this and put off their stars’ open market prospects until they’re past 30, when long-term deals are tough to come by.
Less free-spending teams, like the Oakland As, use the unfair pay-system to their advantage as well by employing way-too-cheap talent through the first couple years of their prime without having to dole out much money.
I love Moneyball as much as the next guy, but this NEEDS to be worked out in the next CBA.
Just for fun, I’ve outlined some predictions for the upcoming season below. I’ve provided absolutely no justification or reasoning because this column is long enough, but feel free to plagiarize my picks for gambling purposes (just kidding – please don’t do that):
Division Winners: Nationals, Brewers, Dodgers
Wild Card: Cubs-Phillies
MVP: Bryce Harper (Phillies)
Cy Young: Max Scherzer (Nationals)
Division Winners: Red Sox, Astros, Indians
Wild Card: Athletics-Yankees
NLCS: Red Sox-Yankees (I can dream, can’t I?)
Pennant: Red Sox
MVP: Matt Chapman (Athletics)
Cy Young: Chris Sale (Red Sox)
World Series Champion: THE WASHINGTON NATIONALS
It’s a homer pick, I know, but Richard Justice of MLB.com just called them a “perfect team” on the Tony Kornheiser show. That’s got to count for something.