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A Wizard of Flaws: The Ernie Grunfeld Era in D.C. Has Been One Prolonged Bummer

The Wizards’ weekend trade for Trevor Ariza follows a familiar Grunfeld formula: middling deals to get out of predicaments that the longtime GM created earlier in his tenure

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Did the Washington Wizards get a statement win at home on Sunday? On a balmy, damp December night in Chinatown, they topped the Lakers 128–110. John Wall poured in 40 points, a season high, to go with 14 assists. Bradley Beal scored 25; Jeff Green and the recently acquired Sam Dekker each added 20 points. LeBron James was held to 13 points, a season low.

Hold on. Don’t be distracted. Please do pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Sunday night fixed nothing. The same could be said for the rest of the weekend.

On Friday night bleeding into Saturday morning, the Wizards were in the news for a different reason: After botching a three-team trade with the Grizzlies and Suns, Washington ended up moving two maybe-serviceable wings in Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers to Phoenix in exchange for one older, maybe-serviceable wing in Trevor Ariza.

Ariza, who played two seasons with the Wizards from 2012 to 2014, is known to be a good locker-room presence, and is a reliable outside shooter who will be able to help space the floor for a Washington team in need of spacing. Perhaps his addition will help the Wizards slide into the playoffs; the East’s middle class is not strong. But that minor success will only serve to overshadow the organizational dysfunction that has trapped the team in the middle of nowhere.

Ernie Grunfeld sure knows how to get himself out of a jam. He’s been the head executive of the Wizards since 2003; only four people (San Antonio’s R.C. Buford, Miami’s Pat Riley, Dallas’s Donnie Nelson, and Boston’s Danny Ainge, all title winners) have been in that role for longer. But the Wizards have not been a model of Spursian dominance; they have not won 50 games or two consecutive playoff series in 40 years. Grunfeld’s best teams can most favorably be described as cult classics. His best trades have been middling deals to get out of predicaments that he created earlier in his tenure. His good draft picks have been gimmes, and his bad draft picks — boy, have they been bad.

Grunfeld’s misfirings are too numerous to list, but among his career highlights are:

  • Trading the fifth pick in the 2009 draft for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, both of whom were gone within a year
  • Drafting Jan Vesely, who nearly averaged as many fouls as points during his career, sixth in 2011
  • Signing Ian Mahinmi to a four-year, $64 million deal in 2016 after whiffing on Kevin Durant and Al Horford
  • Allowing Randy Wittman to coach the team for four-plus seasons during the team core’s formative years

Here are some more:

The Wizards under Grunfeld have been a model of deceptive incompetence. Their middling success has been good enough to convince fans to leave their pitchforks at home. And that, apparently, is good enough for ownership. When Grunfeld’s contract is extended, as it was as recently as 2017, it is done in secret. Much has been written about the team’s failings on the court and the soap opera that is the locker room, but it is often ignored that this is the continuing result of a 15-year process overseen by one man.

Now, when the Wizards stumble into the playoffs with a mangled, limping roster bolstered by a rent-a-wing acquired as part of a salary dump (sound familiar?), it will be harder to see it as a valiant quest by an undermanned team and easier to see it as an act of self-preservation by a GM who knows that the next season in the lottery could be his last.


What does it mean for an NBA team to fail? Has a team failed if it misses the Finals? Misses the playoffs? Has a team failed if it tanks and makes a bad draft pick? Or if ticket prices drop? Is it really possible for a team to be failing in a league that is this prosperous?

Every NBA team’s value has appreciated over the past decade. Even the league’s least valuable team is worth over a billion dollars. The most valuable basketball team in the world has won one playoff series in the last 18 years. Good management will bring great returns, but, for now, it seems that bad management will do pretty well, too. In 2010, Ted Leonsis acquired the team for $550 million days before Grunfeld drafted John Wall. Today, the franchise is estimated to be worth more than $1.3 billion.

Leonsis seems to be a man who cares about his teams. His Capitals are a sort of Inverse Wizards, long a model of shrewd management but bad luck, proof that solid decision-making is the best path, eventually, to a title. That’s what makes Grunfeld’s position so confusing; there is no obvious explanation for his continued employment besides apathy at the levels over his head. Leonsis is certainly no James Dolan. He does not seem to be the type to contentedly sit atop a throne and watch his basketball team drown. So, what gives?

Here are some things that are true about the Washington Wizards: They’re on pace to finish with 31 wins, their lowest total in six seasons. They rank 25th in net rating, and are tied with the third-worst defensive rating in the league. They are currently ensconced in the 11th spot in the East between the two dreadful franchises from New York City.

Scott Brooks, in his third year at the helm, seems to have created more puzzles for himself than he’s solved. John Wall, Otto Porter, and Bradley Beal are talented enough to make for good promotional content, but they are not enough on this Wizards team; that has long been evident to perhaps every person on the planet who does not work in Washington’s front office. But now, each is locked in at a high price, and together will account for more than half of the Wizards’ total cap until at least 2021. Yeah, we’re going to be running this back for a while.

Porter has been a ghost this season. His shooting and rebounding have regressed and he’s looked like the passive figure he was earlier in his career. But the forward is locked into a max deal that will pay him nearly $30 million in 2020–21. And Wall, who is logging his lowest assist percentage since 2012 and seems to be … not a favorite among his teammates … has a supermax extension that will kick in next season and pay a gobsmacking $47 million in 2023. On his old deal, Wall seemed untradable because there was no way that the Wizards would be able to get reasonable value in return. Now, he’s untradable because it might be impossible to find a franchise will get within a mile of his contract. Though that’s none of my business. Beal, perhaps the best player of the trio and certainly the most valuable, can be moved, but with the other two on the roster, there’s little possibility that the team will look to make a true rebuild. To brighten the mood in this gilded prison, the team hasn’t made a move to add youth or bring in a new, experimental coach. Rather, they’ve made repeated lateral moves to preserve some semblance of a competitive spirit. The Ariza trade is the latest evidence that the franchise is content to put Band-Aids on its broken legs, as long as it can make the playoffs walking on its hands.

The relevant questions about the Wizards, to me, aren’t about how to patch up their roster, or how to execute a rebuild given Wall’s and Porter’s inconvenient contracts. What is most important is figuring out why Washington does not want to admit its present situation, and how long it will be until it does.