Ernie Grunfeld’s Gone; But Will Anything Actually Change in D.C.?

Michael Knapp

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. 

Posted on April 11, 2019, in Michael Knapp. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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