NBA Free Agency: The Wizardry of Ernie Grunfeld


I haven’t seen the Wizards manage their finances this well since Gringotts Wizarding Bank. What Ernie Grunfeld has done this off-season has been unprecedented for him, even shocking, really. We have been quick to blame Ernie Grunfeld for his inadequacies, and even quicker to discredit his sharp moves by saying he essentially fell into them, such as drafting  John Wall and Bradley Beal, which is…definitely true. However, this off-season has been an absolute revelation. Granted, the Washington Wizards haven’t won anything yet and it will take some time for all of the pieces to fit together, but for now, let us rejoice in the cap mastery of Ernie Grunfeld.

First, the draft. A day which represented hope for all 30 teams, except the Wizards, who had traded their first round pick for Marcin Gortat last season. And of course the Knicks, because well, they’re the Knicks. The first round came and went, and finally the Wizards were on the clock. Except they weren’t, because they traded the pick to the Lakers for cash considerations. This led to immediate outrage (including from yours truly) from the Wizards fan base, as they saw the organization as “desperately needing youth” or “having no desire to grow talent.” Little did we know, Ernie Grunfeld had a plan.

Next, free agency. Having already traded a first round pick for Gortat, we were all fearful of the impending double whammy about to occur: either Gortat would bolt for a team like Miami, or he would be re-signed to a cap crippling deal well above his market value. And then there was Trevor Ariza. Coming off his best season as a pro where he was one of the very best 3-and-D players in the league, everyone knew he was going to get paid. The only question was which team do the honors. He had developed great chemistry with Wall and no one wanted to see the team take a step back after finally making some post-season noise. Would the Wizards wildly overpay him or would they let him walk for nothing and bet it all on young Otto Porter? Last, there was Trevor Booker. A fan-favorite who hustled and gave it his all on every play, he had a solid season and was sure to command a decent salary. It was almost a foregone conclusion that the Wizards would re-sign him. But again, Ernie Grunfeld had a plan.

Rewind back to that second round pick..erm cash considerations. Well, that shrewd move opened up a roster spot and gave the Wizards the flexibility in free agency needed to finally land DeJuan Blair, a solid backup big man that has been a Wizard target for what feels like forever. As for Gortat, a skilled big man like him was always going to get paid. While many rued the long 5 year $60 million contract, it may actually turn out to be a bargain. Having sat behind Dwight Howard in Orlando for 4 seasons, Gortat has only been a starting center for 4 years in the NBA and will have plenty left in the tank for years to come.

Moreover, the 5 years is actually a blessing in disguise; with the cap set to rise in the next couple of years, Gortat’s $12 million per year will be a smaller percentage of the cap and will be very affordable. Ariza played the waiting game along with everyone else in the NBA universe during LeBron James‘ decision making process, but eventually decided to sign with Houston for $32 million over 4 years. Despite “losing” Ariza, the Wizards were able to get back a trade exception. Which brings us to Trevor Booker. The Wizards let him walk for $5 million per year and were able to turn part of that trade exception into Kris Humphries, a better backup forward for a mere $4.3 million per year. But alas, the Wizards are now Trevor-less.

The Wizards could have rolled the dice and given Otto Porter the opportunity to nail down the starting job before Martell Webster returned from back surgery, but Ernie Grunfeld went in a different direction. A direction nobody saw coming. A direction which still confuses and amazes me. He signed future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce. For 2 years and $10 million dollars. Total. Pierce could have reunited with Doc Rivers on a stacked Clippers team, but instead he chose the Wizards. He brings shooting, veteran leadership, championship experience, and a great mentor for Otto Porter to learn from. While the Wizards will certainly miss the defensive abilities of Ariza, Pierce should more than make up for that on the offensive end. And although Pierce has never been the most athletic guy on the court, he has been an effective defender throughout his career.

People are wondering “can Pierce run with guys like Wall and Beal?” and “can he learn to play off the ball more and still be effective?” To those questions I answer in capital letters, YES. First off, Ariza’s bread and butter was the corner three, which Wall served to him time after time on a silver platter. Ariza nailed 45% of these, a terrific rate. Pierce from the corner three? A red hot 55%. As for catch and shoot attempts, Pierce shot almost 40% from each, which just so happens to be better than guys like Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki. Another aspect Pierce brings to the table is his clutch shooting. While Wall shot a decent 37.8% in the clutch last season and Beal shot 35% (for comparison, Durant shot 37.9%) Pierce shot a blistering 46.9% in the clutch, including 55.2% on three point attempts. The Wizards actually led the league in clutch minutes last year, so adding another shot creator will be huge for this offense.

Perhaps the best part about these shrewd off-season moves is that Ernie Grunfeld managed to maintain flexibility for the critical summer of 2016-2017. Now, I don’t want to fuel any premature rumors, but I hear that playing basketball for your hometown team is all the rage these days. The #KD2DC campaign has already begun, and you have to hand it to Ernie Grunfeld. He has turned the team around with the help of Wall and Beal, and the perception of the Wizards has substantially improved. He has created enough cap space for another max deal to go along with Wall’s and Beal’s which is surely coming, and maybe, just maybe, Kevin Durant likes the team Ernie Grunfeld has built enough to come home.