When professional sports teams struggle, the blame usually gets assigned to a player or a coach. Yet, management is often the overlooked factor. Such is the case with the Washington Wizards.
Who runs a team can affect decades of on-court performance. Whether it be by a coaching change, shuffled front office brass or even agreeing to sign a long-term contract free agent, owners ultimately have the trump card in all decisions.
Sometimes, the owner weighs in on the big moves. Other times, said owner delegates them to a general manager. Either way, every decision is filtered through a primary decision maker.
For the Wizards, that man is general manager Ernie Grunfeld. Late Wizards owner Abe Pollin hired Grunfield to run the team after the latter’s 10-year tenure as New York Knicks GM during the 1990s and a four-year stint with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Pollin desired a fresh start in Washington on the heels of the Michael Jordan player-general manager-owner fiasco. They had the cap space, (thanks to Jordan’s financial saving tendencies), to sign star guard Gilbert Arenas.
For the next six years, the Wizards were full of injuries, drama, coaching changes and squashed playoff dreams.
When majority owner Abe Pollin died, minority owner Ted Leonsis ended up purchasing the majority of the team for $310 million. Leonsis already owned the NHL’s Washington Capitals and WNBA’s Washington Mystics as well 44 percent of the Wizards and its venue: the Verizon Center.
Going into 2010, the Wizards seemed to be stepping into a new era. The team won the draft lottery and selected Kenutcky point guard John Wall. It looked like the Wizards were on the precipice of a new era, so Lenosis decided to retain GM Grunfeld and head coach Flip Saunders.
But that new era didn’t pan out the way Wizards fans had hoped.
In 15 years as steward of Washington’s basketball operations, Grunfeld has presided over more sub-30-win seasons (six) than 45-plus-win campaigns (three) This isn’t circumstantial: Grunfeld continues to make terrible personnel decisions time and time again.
This includes, but isn’t limited to:
- Signing guard Gilbert Arenas to a six-year, $111 million deal in 2008, after Arenas already had knee surgery once.
- Trading the fifth pick in the 2009 NBA Draft for Mike Miller and Randy Foye when Stephen Curry was two selections later.
- Drafting bust Jan Vesley sixth in 2011. The Wizards botched three of the top 34 picks: Vesely, Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack. Grunfeld missed out on Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Jimmy Butler. Yikes.
- Losing out on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, acquiring Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith and Andrew Nicholson for a combined $105 million in the 2016 cap-spiked offseason instead.
- Signing John Wall to a ‘supermax’ extension worth $170 million over four years. He has 46.8 million player option in the 2022-23 season when he’ll be 32 years old.
The roster is salary-heavy and player-light. They have three max players (Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter.) Leonsis is deep into the luxury tax, at nearly $10 million. Yet, second-year head coach Scott Brooks’ rotation only goes seven or eight players deep.
That’s just the roster construction. Team chemistry is even worse.
Wizards teammates cannot seem to stand each other. John Wall trade rumors have been floated since the beginning of the 2016 season. Dysfunction has stopped individual production.
Wall’s assist percentage is lower than it’s been in seven years. Beal’s shooting a piss-poor 32.5 percent from deep. Wall and Beal get the most minutes for a joke of a defense that rates 25th. The core group of Wall, Beal, Porter and Markieff Morris is getting killed by 5.2 points per 100 possessions.
Their offense is isolation-heavy and features little to no off-ball movement. Wizards players practically jog through cuts in a set motion offense. They don’t even help each other up on after a hard foul.
Not only has Grunfeld collected a top-heavy and overpaid roster, but coach Scott Brooks also continues to promote a lack of ball movement. During the 2018 season, Wall spent 76.57 percent of the time on the floor either standing still or walking.
Otto Porter, one of the NBA’s best off-ball cutters and spot-up shooters—and an excellent post scorer—hardly gets open touches.
His team-first mentality is abused by Wall and Beal, often not seeing an open opportunity for possessions at a time. Brooks should use Porter as a screener in both off-ball and in pick-and-pop sets. Porter has always been extremely efficient as the ball handler in pick-and-roll plays. Washington could also play the matchup game with switching defenses by forcing switches and posting Porter when he’s matched against a guard, but Brooks’ scheme hardly allows for Porter to thrive.
“The hardest thing is [to] keep the spirit,” first-year Wizard Austin Rivers said after a loss. “Because once guys get down, it’s over, because teams smell it. You can smell it on a team.”
Scott Brooks shoulders some blame. He’s lost the locker room.
According to The Athletic, John Wall has called out unnamed teammates for worrying about “who’s getting shots” and claimed if his teammates “can’t do it on both ends of the floor, you don’t need to be playing.”
Bradley Beal stated that sometimes he and his teammates “have our own agendas” and love to complain, “whatever it may be.” He also thought the Wizards were “worried about the wrong shit.”
Markieff Morris said that “everybody’s grown here,” advising his fellow teammates to “look in the mirror,” and cautioned that “if you don’t know who you are, I think it’s gonna be hard for you to take criticism.”
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported in mid-November that Washington made Wall, Beal and the entire roster available for trade.
It’s no longer a “team” in any true sense of the word anymore.
Accountability starts with the man who built this roster and brought on Brooks to coach. Ernie Grunfeld, under his second regime, is inadequately running the organization on the hopes of superstars like John Wall and Gilbert Arenas and has made terrible transactions while trading away first round picks like candy. The only general managers with longer tenures are R.C. Buford of the San Antonio Spurs and Pat Riley of the Miami Heat, who have combined for eight championships in the last two decades.
For the Wizards to escape the grasps of mediocrity, owner Ted Leonsis will have to tear it down, starting from the front office to the coaching staff.
Even if keeping John Wall as the face of the franchise (due to his ridiculous contract), you can build the rest of the roster from scratch with a new coach and a new regime.
Trade away Beal and Porter for future assets and cap relief.
Or, if Grunfeld can somehow pull it off, dump Wall’s salary somewhere. Build around Beal and Porter with a more fast-paced offensive scheme.
It’s time to blow it up.
Austin Hutchinson is a freelance writer who resides in both Southern California and the Chicagoland area. He is also a breaking news writer for Clutch Points. A lifelong Bulls fan, Austin has written for BBallBreakdown, Fan Rag Sports, and NBA Math, among many others.