The Washington Wizards are stuck in the same chamber of playoff mediocrity they set up camp in half a decade ago. Since reaching the NBA Finals 39 years ago, the Wizards/Bullets haven’t reached the conference finals, and have no 50-win seasons to its name.
Most other franchises would respond by changing leadership. The Wizards have done the exact opposite.
The Wizards not only extended the contract of long-time president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, according to Candace Buckner of the Washington Post, but that they did so secretly months before a disappointing postseason finish even took place. Fans have been calling on his firing for nearly a decade now, using Twitter hashtag #FireErnie, yet he will stay atop the franchise for the 16th year in a row.
Buckner did not confirm how many years are on Grunfeld’s extension (a later report by Ben Standig of The Sports Capitol noted it was a two-year extension), and the team didn’t hold a press conference or formally announce anything. But he’ll still be in control of a Wizards’ franchise that has no obvious avenue to improve after a rough season.
The team’s superstar, John Wall, has already put the pressure on Grunfeld to make moves this season.
“It’s up to our front office to add the pieces they think we need to make our team better and more complete,” Wall said to the media after the Raptors knocked the No. 8 seed out of the first-round of the playoffs, 4-2.
But the Wizards are already over the predicted 2018-19 salary cap before signing a single free agent or using their first-round draft pick. Grunfeld’s moves have left no cap room to sign key players.
How’d the Wizards get here?
The pieces to win a championship have never been in place under Grunfeld, who is the fifth-longest tenured chief basketball executive in the NBA behind the Spurs’ R.C. Buford, the Heat’s Pat Riley, the Mavericks’ Donnie Nelson, and the Celtics’ Danny Ainge. Those four all have at least one title to their name, while Grunfeld has never made a conference championship game.
Grunfeld has been at the helm of the organization since 2003, where he’s had successes, but also enough failures that would put most others on the hot seat.
He made his first big signing the summer after he was hired, signing all-star-to be Gilbert Arenas. The following year he traded for Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler and grew the Wizards into a competitive playoff unit for the first time since they were the Bullets, though they never even won a game in the second round of the postseason and beyond.
Sounds like he did a solid job. What happened?
Things were on the ups until injuries hampered the latter part of Arenas’ stay. Then Arenas was found with guns in his locker a year after signing a six-year, $111 million contract, and Washington plummeted out of perennial playoff contention. In fact, they sunk into one of the league’s worst teams for five seasons, winning 29 games or less each year in that span.
Despite that, Grunfeld signed a three-year contract extension after the 2012 season. It was originally reported as a two-year extension, but it turns out there was a secret third year on the contract, according to a 2014 report by The Washington Post’s Mike Wise.
(Grunfeld also received an unannounced contract extension sometime before the summer of 2016, which was not reported until after the 2015-16 season ended.)
After three different head coaches, the Wizards returned to the second round of the playoffs again in 2013-14, under surging star Wall and a young Bradley Beal. They’ve only missed it once in the years since.
There were mistakes along the way, though. Three consecutive first-round picks from 2006-08 fielded No. 18 Oleksiy Pecherov, No. 16 Nick Young, and No. 18 JaVale McGee. Young and McGee played four and five years respectively in Washington, while Pecherov played 67 total games in two seasons. Grunfeld then botched on 2011 No. 6 pick Jan Vesely and No. 18 pick Chris Singleton, and also signed Andray Blatche to an ill-fated contract extension that he had to release a year later with the amnesty clause.
But the Wizards are relevant again!
They are, but they’re in a similar stage of good, but not good enough.
Drafting John Wall No. 1 in 2010, Beal No. 3 in 2012 and Otto Porter No. 3 in 2013 brought the Wizards back into contention. Still, unable to eclipse 50 wins, they stood a piece away from true contention, and Grunfeld and staff failed to deliver despite creating the cap room in 2016.
He swung and missed on Al Horford, and, even more embarrassingly, didn’t get a visit from Maryland native Kevin Durant in the same offseason.
Where’d that cap space go?
The money missed on those all-stars was invested in one of the worst signings of the summer, Ian Mahinmi, who the Wizards are paying the remaining two years of a four-year, $64 million contract to play backup center. Yikes.
This summer, the Wizards re-signed Otto Porter to a four-year maximum $106 million deal, essentially strapping the team from a financial aspect to the roster it currently has.
The Mahinmi failure is the just the latest episode of Grunfeld moves that have annoyed Wizards fans watching Wall play through his prime years.
Can Washington grow any of its young talent instead?
Grunfeld has been in win-now mode for years now, trading first-round picks in 2014 and 2016 to land Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris. The last first-round pick they kept was Kelly Oubre in 2015, and though he’s come on strong in recently, the Wizards will likely need to exceed the luxury tax to keep him long-term.
So what now?
Washington is quietly sticking with Grunfeld despite moderate success with a ton of failures between. Owner Ted Leonsis’ choice to extend his contract without a press conference is telling.
Wizards fans aren’t pleased, but they also aren’t surprised. As Jake Whitacre wrote on SB Nation’s Wizards site Bullets Forever.
We could stand here and tell you this is surprising, but it isn’t. The changing of ownership didn’t lead to changes, the tumultuous end of the Gilbert Arenas era didn’t lead to changes, drafting Jan Vesely ahead of four all-stars didn’t lead to changes, signing Ian Mahinmi to a $64 million deal didn’t lead to changes, using a first-round pick to get out from a deal that had been signed just six months prior didn’t lead to changes, posting a losing record over the course of the prior 14 years didn’t lead to changes, so why would anything this season have made a difference?
When you put it that way, yikes.