It’s a dirty word in sports that is often synonymous with a few years of mediocrity or irrelevance while the team cleans house and lays a new foundation. The idea being that once a team goes through this massive organizational overhaul one time, that’ll be it, and any future changes that need to be made will be more akin to remodeling.
That is what the Wizards were hoping for and continue to hope for.
During the 26 win and 56 loss 2009-2010 season Ernie Grunfeld decided that it was time to break up the roster that brought playoff relevance back to the nation’s capital, and start over — and this would mark to the start of the Wizards supposed rebuilding process. In February of that season he shipped Antawn Jamison to Cleveland and sent veterans Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson to the Dallas Mavericks. Grunfeld didn’t get much back in return for those players that played such major roles in the team’s success, as none of the players received in those trades are still in Washington, but cap space was created, money was saved, and opportunities were made available for younger players to play.
Around this time it was announced that long-time owner Abe Pollin had agreed to sell the team to the owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals, Ted Leonsis, and the sale was officially approved by the NBA on June 8th.
This was the time, the window of opportunity. Things could have been changed and this rebuilding project could have actually began.
By this time, when the sale of the team became official, the team had already won the draft lottery and won the “John Wall sweepstakes”, as the obvious first overall pick — a gift for a team that had won just 68 games its previous two seasons and looked at itself as rebuilding.
Since then the roster has been overhauled for the most part, led by a new “face of the franchise” in John Wall, but coaching and the man pulling all the organizational strings and calling the shots as the team president have not.
Flip Saunders signed a four year contract and was the head coach for just one season prior to Ted Leonsis purchasing the team, and in that one season the team won 26 games – with an albeit bad roster. I typically don’t advocate firing a head coach after one season, but in this case it would have been warranted and understandable. Saunders gained a reputation as a head coach that worked well with veteran teams, helping them become playoff teams, and he won a lot of regular season games with veteran rosters in Minnesota and Detroit. However, this wasn’t the direction that Leonsis wanted to go in with the Wizards. In the NHL, Ted Leonsis saw his Capitals build with young talent as they became a perennial title contender, and that was what he envisioned the future being for the Wizards. As the new sheriff in town, Leonsis should have looked for a head coach that had a background in developing and mentoring young players. Instead, the organization continues to attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole with Flip Saunders as the head coach.
Last year in Saunders’ second season as head coach the team won 23 games, but I don’t want to hang all the blame on him. I don’t know that any coach could win with the players that he has been supplied with by team president Ernie Grunfeld.
Ernie Grunfeld is the key piece in this rebuilding job. He’s the one calling the shots and orchestrating this project. He’s now in his second full season attempting to build a roster through the draft with young talent and build a winner, but to this point he has built more of a circus rather than a competitive roster.
Grunfeld deserves credit for roster moves like taking on salary dumps like Ronny Turiaf this year and Kirk Hinrich a year ago from other teams and turning Hinrich around at the trade deadline to acquire more “assets” and he does get a pat on the back for sending Gilbert Arenas to Orlando for Rashard Lewis last December. However, even though many people applaud Grunfeld for trading away the one time face of the franchise and saving a lot of money in the process, that trade was only necessary because Ernie Grunfeld gave Gilbert Arenas a six year contract worth 111 million knowing that Arenas had a bad knee. That is just one of the poor decisions he’s made. In the 2009 draft he gave up the fifth overall pick for veteran role players Randy Foye and Mike Miller, who were both gone after one season with the Wizards. He’s the one responsible for giving the team’s biggest headache, Andray Blatche, a five year extension worth 35 million, plus incentives after Blatche proved next to nothing. And finally, after being hired in June of 2003,the Wizards have just one playoff series win in that time. That doesn’t take away from the quality teams that the Wizards had over that time span, but if you’re just a playoff team that’s not in title contention — which the Wizards never truly were — then what are you doing? The answer is wasting time.
All of these moves alone should be enough to convince everyone that Grunfeld deserved to be fired the moment Ted Leonsis purchased the team.
But instead of starting from scratch and starting anew, Leonsis entrusted Ernie Grunfeld to lead his team into the future with the new philosophy of focusing on young talent and building through the draft. With that decision, Ted Leonsis handed the keys to his brand new car to a man that should have had the NBA equivalent of a revoked driver’s license.
Now the Wizards are left with a young roster of characters that have no idea how to correctly play the game of basketball, courtesy of Ernie Grunfeld, and a head coach that is not equipped to handle this kind of group. In fairness to Flip, is there a head coach that could handle the knuckleheads currently on the roster? Could anyone make Andray Blatche care about playing defense or giving effort? Is there someone out there that could make JaVale McGee care about things other than making highlight reel plays? The answer to both is likely no, just like I don’t think anyone could develop Nick Young into anything more that he currently is, which is a one dimensional player, or handle Jordan Crawford thinking he’s worthy of taking twenty shots a game. The only way to deal with them is to bench them, plain and simple. However, that’s made infinitely harder when you are working hand in hand with the man that hand-picked them in Grunfeld, especially when he and Leonsis are in “lock step” as Ted Leonsis put it earlier this month. Both Ted Leonsis and Ernie Grunfeld want to see the young players like Blatche, McGee, Young, and Crawford develop. The issue with that line of thinking is that they won’t necessarily develop, and just because they’re young, it doesn’t mean they are going to become good players in the future. Being a young player doesn’t mean a player will develop into a productive NBA player and have a long career. Sometimes basketball players just aren’t very good and they don’t cut it, young or old. It isn’t that complicated.
John Wall is still the cornerstone and there are young players like Trevor Booker, Shelvin Mack, Chris Singleton, Jan Vesely, and Kevin Seraphin that will potentially have long productive careers for the Wizards, and that’s a step in the right direction. But until Ted Leonsis fires Ernie Grunfeld and Flip Saunders, the rebuilding process won’t have officially begun.
Rebuilding is starting from scratch and you lay a new foundation. You don’t do that by keeping the same roster architect that drove the team into the ground and you don’t keep a coach that does not match your philosophy as an owner.
Leonsis’ commitment to Ernie Grunfeld and Flip Saunders has set the franchise back, just like Grunfeld’s commitment to players like Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Nick Young, and Jordan Crawford will continue to set the franchise back.
The only hope is that Ted Leonsis’ seemingly never-ending patience wears out sooner rather than later and he makes the moves that should have been made his very first day on the job.
Topics: Abe Pollin, Andray Blatche, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood, Caron Butler, Chris Singleton, DeShawn Stevenson, Ernie Grunfeld, Flip Saunders, Gilbert Arenas, Hilton Armstrong, Jan Vesely, Javale Mcgee, John Wall, Jordan Crawford, Kevin Seraphin, Kirk Hinrich, Maurice Evans, Mike Bibby, Nick Young, Rashard Lewis, Ronny Turiaf, Shelvin Mack, Ted Leonsis, Trevor Booker, Wizards