Washington Wizards: All Eyes Are on General Manager Ernie Grunfeld

Feb 26, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks gestures from the bench against the Utah Jazz in the fourth quarter at Verizon Center. The Jazz won 102-92. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 26, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks gestures from the bench against the Utah Jazz in the fourth quarter at Verizon Center. The Jazz won 102-92. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

Washington Wizards traded another first round pick before the 2017 NBA Trade Deadline. Now all eyes are on general manager Ernie Grunfeld.

If the Washington Wizards’ season ends shy of the Eastern Conference Finals, they’ll have a familiar target to blame: Ernie Grunfeld. It may sound strange, blaming the general manager of a team that is 11 games above .500 and in third place in the East, but I’ll explain.

Grunfeld has helped construct what is one of the top starting lineups in the NBA.  The starting five has few weaknesses, but offers a balance that is difficult for teams to defend.

John Wall can collapse an entire defense, Bradley Beal has emerged as one of the top shooting guards in the Eastern Conference, Otto Porter is a lights out shooters, Marcin Gortat is a very good screen and roll center, and Markieff Morris has improved his play and brought a toughness to the starting unit that it had sorely lacked without Nene.

The problem is, this starting unit was in place after last season’s trade deadline.

Since then, the front office, led by Grunfeld, has used approximately $35 million in cap space, their 2017 first round draft pick, and a future second round selection (used to acquire Trey Burke).

What they have to show for it is one of the worst benches in the NBA and only two players who are reliable in Jason Smith and the recently acquired Bojan Bogdanovic.

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The two highest paid acquisitions this summer, Ian Mahinmi and Andrew Nicholson, provided nothing.

Nicholson’s play was so poor, in fact, that Washington devalued their 2017 first round draft pick in their trade with the Brooklyn Nets by attaching it to his contract in what was, in one respect, a salary dump.

The Wizards had three needs as they approached the trade deadline: add a play-making guard, scoring, and defense to the second unit.

Washington accomplished one of the three with their acquisition of Bogdanovic, however, they ignored their primary need.

The acquisition of Trey Burke has not worked out.

He has improved ever so slightly as of late by focusing on scoring rather than facilitating, but he struggles to run the offense and that once again was highlighted versus his former team, the Utah Jazz, on Sunday night.

Burke was unable to move the ball or get players the ball in position to score in limited first half minutes and ended up benched for the second half.

It’s unfortunately been the story of his season as he has struggled mightily as a playmaker, often forcing John Wall to have to check in sooner than likely planned.

In the two games since the All-Star break, John Wall has averaged 39 minutes per game – a 2 minute per game increase for a player who was already top 10 in the NBA in minutes played per game. The front office failed to ease the burden on Wall.

Mahinmi was likely looked at to tighten up the Wizards’ defense down the stretch. He has struggled with injuries and integrating himself into a lineup that was clicking before his return, an unenviable position.

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He returned to play four games before the All-Star break and using the word “rusty” to describe his play would be kind.

That sub-par level of play continued in Washington’s 0-2 start post break.

With 25 games to go, it’s fair to question if the Washington Wizards are doing the right thing but even trying to re-integrate him into the rotation.

Jason Smith, the most consistent and productive player of the Wizards’ bench has lost the most playing time as a result of Mahinmi’s return.

As absurd as it sounds, Scott Brooks has taken minutes away from a player who shot 61% from the field and 60% from the 3-point line in the month of February.

The race in the Eastern Conference is tight and the Wizards don’t have the luxury of forcing Mahinmi  into action at the expense of the team.  His return has disrupted chemistry and taken a productive player off the floor.

Comparing the Wizards’ situation to a team like Toronto Raptors, the Raptors had a tradeable contract of a decent enough player (Terrence Ross) to add in addition to their first round pick.  When they shopped their first round pick, it wasn’t devalued.

Toronto was able to acquire a player the caliber of Serge Ibaka, a player who will truly impact the race down the stretch and can alter the postseason. They didn’t stop as they went on to add P.J. Tucker, a rugged defensive wing, to the roster by trading an expiring contract and multiple second  round selections.

The Raptors, a team that was in a tailspin before the All-Star Break, now looks like perhaps the East’s most formidable opponent to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Washington Wizards weren’t capable of any such moves because they either didn’t have attractive enough young players on a long-term deal like a Ross to offer, nor did they have an expiring player to include in an offer (i.e. Jared Sullinger).

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The Wizards were handcuffed by past mistakes so instead of making their own “all-in” move to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers, they used their first round selection to acquire more of a band aid than game changing upgrade.

It was rumored that Washington had interest in Lou Williams.

If Washington had an expiring contract to offer along with the first round selection, perhaps a proposal from the Wizards for Williams might have looked better than the one full season left on Corey Brewer’s contract which Houston traded for the professional scorer.

Looking towards the future, the Wizards’ problems don’t fix themselves with time.

Due to the decisions made last summer, the Wizards were in a precarious position with Otto Porter’s impending max contract and as such, it was necessary to move Nicholson’s 2018 salary off the books.

In short and ball parking estimates, the Washington Wizards have approximately $94 million in salary obligations towards next season.  Porter’s max contract will cost close to $25 million, leaving the Wizards just $2 million shy of the projected luxury tax line.

That line is important as far as the Wizards are concerned because Ted Leonsis, the majority owner of the Wizards, has indicated a reluctance to pay the tax in the past.

Bogdanovic is also a restricted free agent at the end of this season and given what we saw in the market last year, will Washington be able to retain the primary player they traded their 2017 draft select for?

If not, they’re back to square one in terms of needing a scorer on the second unit, but this time without a first round draft selection to help offset the loss or cap space available to find a replacement.  Other moves can be made to free up room under the luxury tax but those moves, similar to dumping Nicholson’s contract, will cost the Wizards’ further assets.

The Washington Wizards are at the beginning of what should be a window to compete for the Eastern Conference Championship.  But based on mistakes that have been made by the front office, a front office led by Grunfeld, that task will be more difficult than it maybe had to be.

Rather than have the assets and roster flexibility needed to truly bolster the roster challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers, it will now fall on Scott Brooks to maximize the production of the current roster.

Next: Reacting to the Wizards' Trade Deadline Deal

In two to three seasons, if the Wizards have failed to advance to at least the Conference Finals, we can look back and clearly be able to identify where momentum was derailed and who was responsible.