Ernie Grunfeld’s Past Mistakes Coming Back to Haunt Washington Wizards

WASHINGTON, DC January 24: Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld (L) looks on during a press conference introducing Randy Wittman as the interim head coach on January 24, 2012 in Washington, DC (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC January 24: Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld (L) looks on during a press conference introducing Randy Wittman as the interim head coach on January 24, 2012 in Washington, DC (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images) /

Washington Wizards free agency has gone pretty much just as expected. Because of mistakes made in previous years, the team is extremely limited in its salary cap room, and thus has missed out on plenty of opportunities this offseason.

The first week or so of free agency has moved at a frenetic pace. The Boston Celtics won the lottery, then traded their number one draft pick (eventually Markelle Fultz) to Philadelphia. They signed big name free agent Gordon Hayward, and then for a few hours it appeared as if maybe they hadn’t. Then, they had again. They traded a key cog in Avery Bradley to clear cap space to acquire Hayward.

The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to pair with center Nikola Jokic. The Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the world by trading for Paul George, giving approximately two cents on the dollar, and giving MVP Russell Westbrook a running mate to replace the recently departed Kevin Durant.

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The Minnesota Timberwolves pulled off a similar heist to acquire Jimmy Butler from Chicago, combining him with their extremely talented but equally inexperienced young core. The Houston Rockets pulled off a stunning sign and trade to acquire Chris Paul and create the league’s best backcourt. Carmelo Anthony might be on his way to H-town next.

Even the Golden State Warriors fresh off of one of the best playoff runs in NBA history, made moves. They not only re-signed stars Durant and Steph Curry, as well key reserves Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, but they also revamped their bench by bringing in Omri Casspi and Nick Young.

Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards have been moving along at a snail’s pace. They have brought in two uninspired signings; veteran journeymen Jodie Meeks and Mike Scott on short deals and waited until the last possible instant to match the Brooklyn Nets’ max offer sheet to restricted free agent Otto Porter.

Washington lost a tough seven game series in last year’s conference semifinals. They are the classic example of a team at a crossroads. They are one more big move from really competing in the Eastern Conference, and one more disappointing season away from perhaps being forced to blow it all up.

There were a number of teams in similar situations this off-season. Boston made a big move (although not as big as many would have thought or liked). Houston seems to swinging for the fences as they pursue the Warriors’ juggernaut. The Thunder took a step towards more serious contention. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks appear ready to hit the reset button.

Washington, though, more or less has stood pat thus far.

This is a team with a well-known coach and a strong, young nucleus. They should be a hotspot destination for free agents or players seeking an escape from unfavorable situations. Instead, for reasons out of the players’ control, Washington is hamstrung and forced to count on internal growth as their competitors make moves that could push them up an echelon next season.

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Rewind back one year, to the 2016 NBA offseason. Washington had, purposely, cleared out a large chunk of cap space in hopes of making the kind of move that would get them off of the treadmill of mediocrity and make them a real player in the Eastern Conference.

The first prize in last year’s free agency class was Kevin Durant. Durant was probably the second best player in the league. He was also contemplating leaving Oklahoma City after years of exciting basketball, but ultimately frustrating results. He is well documented as a DC native, which seemingly put the Wizards on the short list of teams that Durant could join.

Instead, Durant didn’t even give Washington so much as a meeting. The Wizards had struggled the prior season, so they couldn’t sell much of an on court product. Durant, apparently, also didn’t really want to come home and play under the pressure of being around the people with whom he grew up.

Washington next went after Al Horford. Horford narrowed his potential destinations to the Wizards and the Celtics. He reportedly was leaning towards coming to Washington at one point, before eventually electing to go to Boston, in part due to Boston sweeping the Wizards in the season series. By that point, the free agent market had mostly dried up, particularly of true impact players. With two strikes already on the record, Ernie Grunfeld decided to swing for the fences.

He struck out.

Instead of signing people to short deals and going after the bigger names in 2017, Grunfeld seemingly threw his surplus of funds around haphazardly. He gave Ian Mahinmi, he of one half decent NBA season, $64 million over four years.

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Jason Smith, an anonymous journeyman center, was given a 3 year, $16 million contract. Andrew Nicholson came aboard for 4 years, $26 million.

With stars John Wall and Bradley Beal already on expensive deals, and fellow starters Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris not far behind, Washington’s cap flexibility was already narrowing. With Porter experiencing a breakout season and commanding a max contract as well, Washington cap space for the summer of 2018 is now virtually non-existent.

Those long-term, hefty contracts last summer are not helping.

Usually teams that figure that they can and want to attract big free agents to their franchise can free up cap space by attaching a young asset or a draft pick to a bad contract and receive a player on a shorter term deal in return. Think of what Magic Johnson did to rid himself of Timofey Mozgov (the league’s worst contract) or what the Toronto Raptors had to do in order to move on from DeMarre Carroll (not far behind).

The Lakers want cap space for next summer, when they are the frontrunners to land LA native Paul George and the Raptors needed an upgrade at the three, which they got in the form of C.J. Miles.

The problem is, Washington doesn’t have many valuable assets. See, Ernie Grunfeld has a history of making bad draft picks and poor free agent signings.

Washington traded away a first round draft pick in 2016 to land Markieff Morris. Now, Morris has been a very good piece for the Wizards, and the trade was a solid piece of business. However, it was only necessary because Grunfeld failed to notice the gaping hole at power forward that the Wizards had entering 2015-16.

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In 2016-17, with the starting lineup virtually set in stone, Grunfeld didn’t realize, that with all of his signings, Washington still lacked a scorer off the bench. He attached a first round pick to the terrible Nicholson contract in order to land Bojan Bogdanovic from Brooklyn. 26 games and a playoff disappointment later, Bogdanovic is on his way to Indiana. The Wizards got nothing in return.

Now, not only do the Wizards have no young players from either of the past two drafts, but Grunfeld seems hesitant to trade any more future picks so that he doesn’t completely drain his team of future talent.

Therefore, in order to move on from Ian Mahinmi or Marcin Gortat, two slow-footed, shot-wary bigs, Washington would either have to part ways with another pick, or the team’s only young asset, Kelly Oubre Jr., who has shown enough promise that Washington seems unwilling to let him go.

Washington will be good next season. The presence of Beal, Porter, and especially Wall almost guarantees that. They might be able to beat Boston, even though their rivals took steps forward that the Wizards did not. However, Washington failed to really improve.

Next: John Wall Just Chillin In Regards to Max Extension

They perhaps failed to impress Wall enough to convince him to sign a super-max extension. And they can blame it all on a series of poor moves that has seemingly left the Wizards stuck for the near future.