Dear Ted Leonsis: Ernie Grunfeld Needs To Go

After the Wizards won the 2010 NBA draft lottery, it may have seemed impossible for the Washington front office to come away from this year's draft with anything but an A+. But the Washington front office and GM Ernie Grunfeld never cease to amaze...

You'd have to be insane to call the Washington Wizards' draft a failure. You'd have to be insanely greedy to be anything but grateful for a draft that lands a player like John Wall.

So we'll tread lightly here. This is the sort of stuff that can rub the Basketball Gods the wrong way, create unnecessary negative energy around a resurgent team, and make me look like a miserable twat. But certain things just have to be put on record.

Leave it to the Washington Wizards to luck out with NBA Draft Lottery, land the number one pick in probably the best year since Kevin Durant entered the NBA, and still... Still, find a way to trample all over my heart on draft night. I mean, seriously, the Washington Wizards and GM Ernie Grunfeld ruined what should have been the best day of the Wizards year.

We traded for Kirk Hinrich (due $17 million over the next two years) and the number 17th pick in the 2010 first round, because... Because apparently a package deal with Del Negro wasn't available.

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Seriously. That's the only way this trade could have been more disastrous, and even then, at least it'd be signifying a clear direction for the franchise (deliberate sabotage by Grunfeld). Instead, we're left with a trade that baffled even the biggest GM apologists. Myself included. It bothers me to no end when basketball writers ramble on and on about how much better they could do the job. It's like saying "Coaching in the NBA is so easy, anyone could do it!"

There's a lot more nuance required for either discussion, and with the role of general manager, as much as picking the players for your favorite basketball team seems like a "dream job," the truth is more complicated. Administrative duties are numerous, you're constantly second-guessed by the media and cursed by the fans, and at the end of the day, your job is to predict the behavior and performance of some of the most unpredictable people on the planet, factoring in character, injuries, off-court issues, salary constraints, and the delicate balance between winning immediately, and building toward the long term.

Doesn't sound so fun now, does it?

There's a science to some of it, but it's a lot of middle ages alchemy, too. And the rest of it's about as exciting as data entry. An NBA GM doesn't lead a glamorous life. Not to mention the personal element to all this. Grunfeld's bounced from city to city over the years, uprooting his wife and kids with every twist and turn, and operating at the whims of new owners, new media, new fans, and every other mid-level member of the sports bureaucracy that fans overlook, but GMs deal with every day.

So it's not lost on me that being a General Manager is difficult, and this isn't some screed against Grunfeld over losing a guy like Alonzo Gee. This isn't even about Grunfeld, really. It's about John Wall, and what kind of franchise the Wizards want to be going forward.

With Thursday's trade of Kirk Hinrich, we basically announced to the entire league, "Hey! Don't worry, we're still the dumbest team in the room." A few points to consider here... 

1. We Gave The East To The Chicago Bulls. Mind you, with the Hinrich trade, the Bulls asked for nothing in return. Nothing. You ever consider why a team would give away a player for free? Three possibilities

  • They've been trying to trade him for years, and have given up hope of getting any value in return.
  • They think the player is past his prime, or fatally flawed.
  • They desperately need cap space to make a splash in free agency.

If the answer falls under any of the above three reasons (fourth, and only acceptable reason: They're dumb) it's probably a terrible idea to trade for said player. If said team is trying to create cap space to sign two of the top ten basketball players on earth, thus giving birth to a dynasty that will plague your existence for at least the next five years?

ZOMG JUST DON'T MAKE THE TRADE TAKE YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER PUT AWAY YOUR CELL PHONE PLEASE GOD PLEASE DON'T MAKE THE TRADE.

But we went ahead and made the trade, opening the door for Chicago to sign LeBron James and/or Chris Bosh, pairing them with Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, and immediately becoming the most unstoppable team in basketball. Hey, but we got Kirk Hinrich!

2A. What did we really get? With Hinrich, we've now got a third point guard capable of starting in the NBA. Will this make us better in the short term? Maybe. Hinrich's defense will be helpful off the bench in key situations, and with any luck, that side of his game will rub off on John Wall.

But as I said when the trade first happened, Kirk Hinrich is essentially a less athletic version of Antonio Daniels, and a guy who's due nearly $20 million over the next two seasons. Does that sound like a player you'd be interested in? Does that sound like a player anyone would be interested in? Now you see why the Bulls have unsuccessfully tried to trade him for years.

2B. What did we really get? The number 17 pick in the draft, which became Kevin Seraphin. This is a player described by Draft Express as "far from a finished product," who played all of 16 minutes per game in Europe this past year.

Ted Leonsis has been adamant about adding young players through the draft, so maybe this isn't totally Grunfeld's fault. But for context, consider Oklahoma City, picking at no. 18 in this year's first round. They traded for that pick from Miami and took on Daquean Cook's $3.4 million contract in return. Miami got the 32nd pick in return.

Couldn't the Wizards have pulled off a similar deal, offering either the 30th or 35th pick in the draft? It's one of those hindsight-is-20-20 criticisms that get pinned on GMs all the time. Ernie and his staff clearly just missed the opportunity there. But that's not what's so disappointing. The Oklahoma City deal is less a roaring success for the Thunder than it is a fair indication of market value for that spot in the draft.

By contrast, the Wizards took on $17 million of additional salary, and a player that will disrupt their rotation, and force them to make some difficult decisions regarding young players (we'll get there). $3.4 million for no. 18, or $17 million for no. 17? Let's move on.

3. What did we lose? A popular defense of the deal was "The Wizards got better, and we gave up nothing to get a quality rotation guy!" That, or "Kirk Hinrich will teach John Wall how to be an NBA point guard!" We'll go back to the bullet points for this one. 

  • Quality rotation guy. We don't need more combo guards. Gilbert Arenas has got the Wizards covered in that department. At best, Kirk Hinrich is counter-productive. His defense helps us become a 35-win team instead of a 25-win team, and the Wizards fall to the bottom of the lottery next year. What good does that do? So now we have to cut Shaun Livingston, the only Wizard who actually showed promise last year? As a fan, would you rather your team lose 25 games and see how Livingston pans out, or lose 35 riding Hinrich/Gil? When you factor in the benefits of a lottery pick, it's not even a question. To that point, a note to Ted: The NBA Draft isn't like hockey. If you're not picking in the top five for a few years--hard to swallow, but necessary--"building through the draft" won't really work.
  • Mentor to John Wall. Riiiiiiiiiight. As if Kirk Hinrich is going to be the player that takes Wall under his wing. If we're concerned about shaping Wall as a professional—I'm not saying we should be—I'd suggest we get rid of Andray Blatche, Nick Young, and Gilbert Arenas before we talk about adding positive role models. John Wall is a natural winner. He's mature beyond his years. He doesn't need someone like Hinrich to hold his hand. Really, the only concern is that Blatche, Young, and Gil rub off on him in the wrong way.

And that's not even the worst part of the deal. By adding Hinrich, we've probably killed any chance we may have had at landing Carmelo Anthony next summer. Depending on who you're talking to, the notion of 'Melo in a Wiz uniform might elicit scoffs, but with Wall, cap space, [Lottery Pick X], and the closest franchise to Carmelo's native Baltimore, we had a chance.

Now, instead, we're back to square one. A team that's clumsily straddling the line between winning now and building for the future, with limited cap flexibility, and no relevance with regard to major NBA free agents—you know, the guys that win championships in this league.

Rather than swing for the fences, the Wizards would rather hit into double plays.

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It's no longer acceptable to be the idiots in the room. We have John Wall now. The NBA is a superstar league, and we just lucked out and landed one. What exactly does that mean, you ask?

Put it this way: If you're playing poker, it's okay to be bad at the game. But when fate deals you a winning hand—like a once-in-a-lifetime, best at the table, winner—it's kind of disgraceful to sit there at the table puttering around like a fool. It's insulting to everyone else. When you get a winning hand like we've been dealt... If anything, do nothing.

Instead, the good 'ole Wizards are once again the idiots at the table. Taking on Hinrich's massive deal, keeping Arenas, likely letting Shaun Livingston walk, and trading two late draft picks for Trevor Booker, a poor man's DeJuan Blair (who the Wizards could have taken with their second round pick in 2009.) A year ago, missing on Blair didn't matter, because none of this mattered.

The Wizards had become a marginalized franchise, and whatever happened, regardless of the championship rhetoric percolating throughout the Verizon Center halls, the Wizards weren't winning a damn thing. We knew this. The whole NBA knew it.

But now, aside from the Hinrich disaster, even moves like "trading two picks Trevor Booker" mean something. Will he be good? Maybe, and I've got high hopes. But he's not someone you trade to acquire. Low-first and early-second round picks are generally created equal. A team's much better off hoarding those picks and drafting as many people as possible, taking the chance that one or two might turn into quality rotation guys.

Had the Wizards remained at 30 and 35, the picks they traded for Booker, there's a good chance they could have landed him anyway. Worst case, they could have taken a chance on Hassan Whiteside and Solomon Alabi, two first round talents that had slipped. Again... If anything, do nothing.

Instead, the Wizards got proactive, and shot themselves in the foot. Per usual.

So what does it say about the management when "proactive" equates to inevitable doom?

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Again, it's nothing personal toward Ernie Grunfeld, and I have tremendous respect for what he's given to the franchise. This isn't me sitting here submitting my resume for the job.

I'm just a Wizards fan that finally has a reason to care about all this. With John Wall and Ted Leonsis on board, losing doesn't feel inevitable anymore. But as long as Grunfeld's there, the clumsy direction will continue. We'll keep getting fleeced in trades, investing millions in players like Hinrich, and watching teams like Chicago hit the jackpot. Fans have waited and waited for things to change, but even with a blank slate and John Wall, we're headed down the exact same path to perpetual irrelevance. Shooting ourselves in the foot again.

So keep Ernie and the management team if you want, Mr. Leonsis. That's your decision, and giving them a year or two to prove themselves is certainly commendable. Someone like Grunfeld probably deserves it. But just for the record, just because it needs to be said after the Wizards manage to flunk a draft where they got the best prospect available....

If we're making the same mistakes with different players, in different years, in different drafts... Who's fault is that? And more important, if irrelevance is inevitable, why should the fans bother to care?

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