On media day back in December, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis felt it was appropriate to compare his team to a Ferrari. It wasn’t because of the attributes that are usually associated with the high performance Italian race car, but because he was captivated by the idea that the Ferrari didn’t have rearview mirrors to ensure that the driver was only focused on what’s ahead.
Leonsis has taken the same approach with Ernie Grunfeld, extending the Wizards president of basketball operations and focusing on what Grunfeld has done in the past two years while choosing to overlook his checkered tenure at the helm of a middling to frustrating franchise for nearly a decade.
There can be no disputing the enormous messes that Grunfeld has both created and exacerbated in Washington, even if the Wizards before his arrival in 2003 were far worse and more irrelevant. He got Washington back into the playoffs, but his faith in Gilbert Arenas overreached despite Arenas’ knee problems and questionable behavior, whether it was spurred on by late team owner Abe Pollin or not.
His faith in the potential of the Arenas/Antawn Jamison/Caron Butler trio missed the fact that they weren’t able to coexist and that the team, as a whole, was a .500 playoff squad, not an NBA contender. Instead of drafting a potential franchise guard in 2009 like Ricky Rubio or Stephen Curry, Grunfeld traded for Mike Miller and Randy Foye, who were gone from Washington after one disastrous year. Regardless of however many people told Grunfeld his team had top-four potential in the Eastern Conference, Grunfeld put them together with Flip Saunders, and they were awful. That was even before the terrible events of the 2009-10 season, which also aren’t just things that happened – they happened because Grunfeld created the environment in which they could.
Grunfeld also drafted Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche, whose absences have been more or less singled out during the Wizards’ winning streak over the last four games as being crucial reasons why the team has turned the corner of late. Despite what the organization says, they will never be remembered for their development in Washington – they will always be associated with being a distraction during arguably the most disappointing years that the franchise has ever experienced. Oh, and Blatche is still under contract for three more years.
Rashard Lewis, the second-highest paid player in the NBA this season, is also under contract and on the roster despite contributing all but nothing this season.
This is still a better alternative than having Young, McGee or Arenas. Lewis can be disposed of via buyout, and Blatche via amnesty. Grunfeld has wheeled and dealed the last two years in the trade market to clean up the messes that he’s created, and Leonsis has recognized that effort.
Nene isn’t an All-Star. But he was one of the most sought-after free agents last summer, and more important, he’s not McGee. In the long-term, they could’ve cost the same, and bringing on $52 million of salary isn’t the type of move that a general manager does on his way out the door.
Kevin Seraphin looked like another European draft bust last season – right now he’s the best draft pick Grunfeld has made (John Wall was a no-brainer) and gives required pause to anyone that wants to rush to judgment on the potential of Jan Vesely. Jordan Crawford may not be the answer long-term, but he has value – especially when he was acquired for nothing – just like Trevor Booker. Chris Singleton was the one pick everyone agreed was a steal last June. His production this year has been worse than Lewis’, but that may because the Wizards decided to throw him into the starting lineup all season rather than giving a legitimate shot to Maurice Evans.
In fact, the Singleton-Evans dynamic may demonstrate better than anything that Grunfeld and the Wizards knew exactly what was in store this season. It was going to be embarrassing, frustrating and awful. It was also the easiest road to a high pick in a loaded draft and an offseason that the Wizards will enter with crucial salary cap flexibility.
Which means, if you’re able to erase the memory of most of the last four months (or four years), the Wizards are in a better position than they have been in ages, and Grunfeld gets credit for making it happen. It doesn’t matter to Leonsis that he was responsible for the moves that set Washington so far back in the first place. Grunfeld has a knack for rebuilding the Wizards, and he had Leonsis in his corner, evidenced by Grunfeld’s participation in recent NBA Board of Governors meetings in New York and last week by the body language of both as they conversed on the court following a Wizards team photo that reflected just how far they’ve come.
“I give credit to Ernie for putting us in this position so quickly,” Leonsis said on his blog Tuesday morning. “But, like you, I now expect the Wizards to transition from a work-in-progress to a team that competes for a playoff spot.”
Still, a work-in-progress is what the Wizards have been for nine years. But it’s hard to see that without looking backwards.