In the midst of a 101-73 victory against the bottom feeding Charlotte Bobcats, Michael Lee of the Washington Post reported the “devastating” news regarding the contract extension of General Manager Ernie Grunfeld. If you’re as active on Twitter as I am, you witnessed the immediate backlash from fans, and admittedly, even I had to think long and hard about where I stood on this issue. This is the same GM who traded the rights to the 5th overall pick in 2009 for the one year rentals of Randy Foye and Mike Miller. So why am I supporting Mr. Leonsis here? It’s because letting him go would be premature.
Now you may also ask yourself, how is letting go of a nine-year tenured front office executive a premature move? Fans are quick to point the finger — even more so in Washington, D.C. where local teams aren’t exactly the cream of the crop in their respective sports. But the blame shouldn’t go directly on Ernie Grunfeld, because he managed to keep his job through all the turmoil.
The thing is, the Bullets/Wizards had been such a bad team for so long (from 1988 to 2006 the Clippers made more playoff appearances in that span) that the local fans have been sort of beat down so to speak, and there wasn’t really any hope in sight. Keep in mind that they traded our best player (and one of the young up and coming stars at the time) Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe, who both used to be very good players but at this point might as well have been corpses. They were stuck with Juwan Howard’s contract because Pat Riley signed him to an illegal deal that they matched. There wasn’t much hope for this team until Abe Polin got rid of Michael Jordan for good and brought in Eddie Jordan and Ernie Grunfeld, signed Gilbert Arenas and traded for Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, among other good moves. There was a lot more noise in the DC area at the time about this team than there had been in years.
For the casual fan, this was exciting. You had an electrifying star talent with Gilbert Arenas, the team scored a lot, put up highlight plays every night, he hit game winners, and took the Nation’s capital by storm. But to the avid NBA fan, these teams was very flawed, played little to no defense, weren’t efficient on offense, and signed their stars to massive contracts which ultimately hampered the franchise moving forward.
But the mastermind behind this operation wasn’t only Ernie Grunfeld. The owner, Abe Pollin, for all the great contributions he made to the city, was just as much at fault for the team’s downfall. Fans don’t recall the attachment Abe Pollin had with the “big 3″ and how much he protected them. Hell, just recently in an interview with USA Today, Gilbert Arenas discussed the day of Abe Pollin’s funeral and recalled when teammate Brendan Haywood approached him and said, “you’re not protected anymore.” Sure it rubbed off as a joke at the time, but there’s no denying how much leverage he had with the front office. Abe Pollin repeatedly told Arenas “you’re my guy” and that he wanted to win with the Arenas, Butler, Jamison core. One thing a fan of any team will always tell you is that an emotional attachment to a player is never a good thing, and that was the case here.
After a multitude of disastrous events, Ted Leonsis emerged as the majority owner and changed the direction of this franchise.
Let’s agree on one thing, building a team through the draft requires luck just as much as it does skill from an evaluation standpoint. Oklahoma City will be the first to tell you that there’s no wondering what they would have done had they received the first pick of the 2007 NBA draft. The debate on Greg Oden and Kevin Durant was a strong one, and in hindsight, Oden had the higher ceiling. Sure, the decision to go with Russell Westbrook over the likes of Kevin Love and Brook Lopez, or James Harden over Tyreke Evans were brilliant, but the draft lottery was always nice to them, and those three years had very strong draft classes.
Leonsis has continued to preach the notion that Grunfeld will be assessed based on the past two years. Nothing else matters. And why should it? This team was under a completely different direction when Grunfeld made the decision to extend a 30-year-old Antawn Jamison, or signing Gilbert Arenas to a max deal, or trading the 5th pick of the draft for Foye and Miller, and it’s not out the question to assume Pollin had a major influence on those moves. Only one move should lead to an indictment on Grunfeld, and that is the extension of Andray Blatche. Should I bother defending this? Probably not, clearly it was a failure. In hindsight Grunfeld believed signing a homegrown talent to a sizable contract before he hit his ceiling was a smart move. It wasn’t, the return was uninspiring, and the contract was as dubious as the player himself. However, this can be rectified with the use of the amnesty clause this summer.
Why stick with Grunfeld over the likes of Danny Ferry or Kevin Pritchard? It’s possible that Leonsis wants to avoid the drama and instill more confidence in his front office by foregoing the interview process. Or that he simply doesn’t like changing General Managers (he’s never dealt with such a move in his years as a team owner), or that he believes Ernie “passed the test.” The test was tearing down a flawed roster and replacing it with young talent. The two men have a plan and want to see it through together. He has no reason to believe it won’t work right now.
Ernie’s track record may not be hall of fame worthy, and it doesn’t have to, but for the most part he’s pushed all the right buttons. Rather than participating in the free agent frenzy in 2010, he wisely stayed put and took advantage of the cap situation teams were faced with. Big market teams like Chicago, New York, and Miami were setting themselves up for the offseason by dumping contracts, so Ernie used that as leverage to gain more picks. That parlayed itself into Kevin Seraphin, a promising big man, and eventually Jordan Crawford, who’s yet to find his niche in the league. Then he decided to trade Lazar Heyward on draft day for another high motor big man in Trevor Booker, who has become a fan favorite in Washington. The bigger picture here is that these two big men have changed the culture of this team. A team that was once labeled as a “soft” frontcourt that starred Antawn Jamison into a frontcourt that now features high energy players that play defense and rebound.
I get that Wizards fans have been patient for years (although we’re only 3 years removed from our last playoff appearance), but we finally have an owner and a front office dedicated to bringing a perennial contender to Washington. We can argue if Vesely was the right pick or not, or if we’re truly going to be the next Oklahoma City Thunder, or if we don’t have the right personnel to build a team around, but let’s look back at all the “middle of the pack” finishes we had during the “big 3” era. Do we really want to go down that road again, or do we want to build a team the right way?