I was 9 years old when this began. It was the summer of 2003. The days were hot and humid then, as they are now, though the sea level was lower. About two months earlier, Michael Jordan had retired at 40 for a third and final time, and after leading the Washington Wizards through a 37-45 postseason-less campaign, he was also ousted as team president. Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes, Christian Laettner, Tyronn Lue, and Kwame Brown had featured heavily in the team’s rotation. Everything, clearly, was fine.
Ernie Grunfeld took over as the Wizards’ president of basketball operations that June. You’ve surely heard how things have gone since then: decently at best, catastrophically at worst.
But today is a new day. For the first time in nearly 16 seasons, the Washington Wizards will be under new management.
The Wizards have decided to dismiss longtime team president Ernie Grunfeld, according to league sources— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) April 2, 2019
April 2, 2019
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Grunfeld was fired. In another, more conventional organization, this would have happened long ago. The Wizards under Grunfeld have missed the playoffs as often as they have made them; they’ve never made a conference finals; they’ve never won 50 games. At its very best, Washington has been an above-average team, but through two rebuilds and two overextended attempts at contention, Grunfeld endured; of active lead executives, only R.C. Buford, Danny Ainge, and Pat Riley have held their positions longer.
I don’t know what kept Grunfeld in command for all these years. His failures are too numerous to list, but I will still summarize at risk of repeating myself.
First, there was how he handled the draft. I mean, look at this shit:
Time to update Kelly Oubre on the Washington Wizards wasted asset list! (Sadly, this comprehensive and excellent guide is not my handiwork) pic.twitter.com/9xIXn0ckkh— Patrick Hruby (@patrick_hruby) December 15, 2018
Few of Grunfeld’s picks outside of the top three even became serviceable NBA players, and those who did often didn’t do much for Washington. Jordan Clarkson, whom the Wizards seemingly took shrewdly in the second round in 2014, was sent to the Lakers for cash considerations; in 2016 and 2017, Washington didn’t keep a single pick. In 2009, a draft chock full of stars and solid supporting players, Grunfeld infamously traded the fifth overall pick for one-season rentals of Mike Miller and Randy Foye. JaVale McGee and Nick Young were both Grunfeld first-round selections, and relatively good ones at that. Remember Oleksiy Pecherov? Me neither. Remember Jan Vesely? Unfortunately, same.
This anecdote serves as a microcosm of Grunfeld's tenure in Washington: Flip Saunders watched Klay Thompson practice and was convinced he'd be a star. He urged Grunfeld to consider drafting Thompson. He chose Jan Vesely instead.— Ben Mehic (@BenMehicNBA) April 2, 2019
Then there were the signings: Gilbert Arenas’s maybe-worst-contract-in-the-league, Ian Mahinmi’s maybe-worst-contract-in-the-league (a face-saving move after whiffing on Kevin Durant and Al Horford during the 2016 offseason), Otto Porter’s maybe-worst-contract-in-the-league, John Wall’s definitely-worst-contract-in-the-league.
And there were the coaches: Letting the confused and overmatched Randy Wittman preside, for four years (!), over what now seems like the healthiest years of the Beal-Wall era, and then hiring Scott Brooks who, bless his heart, was never equipped to turn the Wizards into a contender.
All of these failures in isolation were not fatal for Grunfeld, but now it is quite obvious what ended his tenure. Last week, I wrote about Bradley Beal, now the face of the franchise and an All-NBA–caliber player, and how his play this season could, somehow, make things even worse for the Wizards in the long term:
Washington’s current predicament all stems back to the supermax extension it gave Wall in the summer of 2017. Back then, high off the most promising playoff run that the franchise had made since the 1970s, the Wizards locked their point guard into a four-year, $169 million deal. Since then, injuries have limited him to 73 games across two seasons. And that massive extension? It doesn’t even kick in until October. The Wall contract, which also includes a 15 percent trade kicker, makes it nearly impossible for the Wizards to start over from scratch. And that inability to rebuild has left Washington in a basketball quarantine. Until 2023, the team will be at least in part a John Wall production. If Beal is named to an All-NBA team this season, he’ll be eligible for the supermax as well. A potential extension, which could be signed in the 2020 offseason, would run through 2024-25 and round out the 13th year of this Wizards era.
Since that story ran, the Wizards have officially been eliminated from this year’s playoffs; that, combined with the organization’s extremely dim future, made it clear, finally, that it was time to start over. Tommy Sheppard, formerly the vice president of basketball operations, has been moved into the lead role in the interim, but the Wizards are actively searching for a new, permanent GM. Who could be next in the capital? Sam Hinkie? Yes! Dell Demps? … Sure. Whoever it is, they’ll have their hands full.
Even with new management, the ghost of Grunfeld’s decisions will hang over Washington for seasons to come. But at least now the organization will be trying something new. I turned 25 last month; it’s about damn time.