[Editor's note: This is the second piece on TAI by John Townsend, check out his first one here.]
“Just because you have money doesn’t mean you should overspend on someone that won’t be a part of your long-term future. If the right opportunity comes along, I think you want to look at it, but I’ve said all along that we might save our powder for down the road, to see what the new CBA brings, to see if there’s a hard cap or a soft cap. We don’t really know all the rules going forward, so just because you have the cap room doesn’t mean you should go out and spend it if it’s not for the right player.”
These were wise words spoken by Wizards GM Ernie, a new herald for operational procedure and organizational preparedness, at a press conference on June 10. As a long-time Green Bay Packer fan (my first memories of football were watching Packers games at 4am in New Delhi, India with my Wisconsin-born dad), I understand and fully endorse building a team through the draft. There seem to be philosophical parallels between Grunfeld and Packers GM Ted Thompson, who firmly believes that the most effective way to build a winning football team is through the draft. Thompson sees free agency as a complementary tool which can be used to add the types of players to a roster that may otherwise be difficult to find. In practice, this means that the Packers re-sign as many of their own players possible. Rebuilding post-Mike Sherman, the Packers made 14 draft-day trades, all but one of them down, turning 31 picks into 44. The Packers’ picks filled the roster with solid “glue guys” and have been able to add impact players including QB Aaron Rodgers, FS Nick Collins, OLB Clay Matthews, TE Jermichael Finley, WR Greg Jennings, and NT BJ Raji. The result? The Packers are a team poised to make deep playoff runs every winter and are near the top of the NFL in just about every statistical category.
Ted Leonsis, the Wizards new majority owner, made public his commitment to building a “generationally great team” that will ultimately win a championship. Under new management, the Wizards will aim to hit their targets in the draft, spend prudently, create a competitive, cohesive team on the court that plays with an identity and within a system, and (most importantly) win games. In an open note to Wizards fans, Leonsis also dismissed the generalized notion that the franchise was unwilling and averse to bringing in free agents. Leonsis noted that that teams must consider using all of the tools at their disposal: the draft, free agency (small, medium, and large), rookie free agency, waiver wire pickups, developmental league players, and finding players in Europe.
All fans want to see that max contract free agent wear their team’s colors. The addition of a superstar means that the team feels it is close to a winning a title and are prepared to kick down the doors of the championship fraternity.
An excerpt from Homer’s Iliad, as interpreted by LeBron James, Superstar:
For my mother Gloria, the goddess of Achillean athleticism tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the [New York, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, DC, etc],
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, yet my comparisons to Jordan will not come quickly.
Soon-to-be free agents around the NBA are already looking for new contracts, bigger homes, and quicker paths to glory. The imminent redistribution of the game’s best players (what Spaniards would call galácticos) will tip the basketball world more than a few degrees off its axis.
What is reassuring is that Leonsis understands that there is no single way to build a great team, nor is there one player to be added that will make a bad team great and capable of winning championships – be it LeBron or Wade, Achilles or Hektor. Without a magic wand, Leonsis puts a great deal of faith in the draft. He writes,
The draft is important because a young, great player gets identified with the team; the fans fall in love with the player over a long period of time; the coach gets to help build a system around that player’s basic skill set; that player helps to build the identity of the team. And younger players are less expensive than max free agents, so they allow you to build more options and have more depth. And I believe when the time comes, your own young players should be courted, respected, treated, and wooed like they are free agents. I prefer to reward people that we know and trust more than players we don’t know and have contributed to another system and franchise…The Washington Capitals have built a core of great young players primarily through the draft. The Pittsburgh Penguins have too, as have the Chicago Blackhawks — the last two Stanley Cup winners. Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher were both drafted in the same draft. Paul Pierce was drafted — Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Wade, Isiah, Akeem the Dream, Magic, Larry Bird…The list goes on and on.
Players demanding max contracts become false heroes when teams fail to first rebuild the roster core, adhere to a system, and employ capable leadership. With Leonsis and Grunfeld at the reins, the Wizards will “create something great, something built to last, a team that holds a mirror up to the communities [they] serve, and that can compete to win championships.”
I love the theory.
But the execution can be much more difficult.
On the other hand, even though the future starts now, Gilbert Arenas’ contract serves as a sobering reminder that the past is very much still with the Wizards franchise. Arenas still has four years on his contract and is owed over $80 million. Of course, this wouldn’t even be a talking point if he was playing as well as he is getting paid. The fact of the matter is that the combo guard formerly known as “Agent Zero” has started just 34 games since the start of the 2008 season (42 games since 2007-2008, the season before he opted out of his final season with the Wizards, before ultimately signing an extension worth a total of $111 million). When Grunfeld talks about not overspending on someone that won’t be a part of your long-term future, I hope he also thought about not overspending on players who can’t even be a part of the present.
Aside from setting the Wizards franchise record for turnovers in a game last year (12), Arenas’ play was pretty decent, especially considering that his knee has been under the knife almost as much as Heidi Montag. Is he worth $17 million this coming season? Absolutely not. Am I willing to be proven wrong? Wholeheartedly.
At present, it seems that Gilbert Arenas will be sharing the locker room with Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Al Thornton, Nick Young, and Quinton Ross this coming season. Figuring out what the Wizards will do to fill their roster demands an exercise in speculation.
After Mike Miller expressed his loyalties to the Wizards and said he would love to play with John Wall, going as far as calling him a shooter’s dream, I optimistically thought the team would be able to re-sign Miller as the MLE.  More recently, Miller has been seduced by the prospect of playing for one of those perennial playoff teams, and reaffirmed his desire to leave Washington for greener pastures with better win percentages.
Where does that leave the Wizards? Well, pretty much in the same place, just with even less “talent”, depending on your definition, to play or play around with.
Grunfeld should follow Ted Thompson’s example and re-sign a couple of our own players – James Singleton and Shaun Livingston.
On Tuesday, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla wrote an article about players, specialists, who can help teams win games on both ends of the floor: shooters, energy guys off the bench, and big men who can defend the rim. James Singleton is definitely a high-energy guy. Singleton always seemed to come up with loose balls and rebounds and even though he will never be mistaken as the most skilled player on the court, he is a valuable asset.
It is hard to argue against re-signing Livingston especially after taking a look at Kyle Weidie’s review. Livingston was very effective offensively, earning the trust of both Flip Saunders and Wizards fans in 2010 and should have the chance to compete for playing time.
Based on these projections, the Wizards would have nine players on the roster and will be almost $16 million under the cap.
While the Wizards are looking for players to build a foundation for the future, not players who remain on the team because of the inflated size of their contracts, they might make the exception in the “Bring Out Your Dead” spirit to grab a player they really want in the draft.
That player might be Solomon Alabi, the 7-footer out of Florida State. Alabi moves incredibly well for his size, has a nice shot, and averaged over 2 blocks per game. He might not be a contributor right away, but the Wizards have time. If nothing else, Alabi’s presence should push JaVale McGee to reach his potential.
The latest draft rumors have the Chicago Bulls almost frantically pursuing cap relief in preparation for free agency and might get out of the draft entirely. Moving up in the draft might require eating Kirk Hinrich’s contract (which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world), but doing so would allow the Wizards to draft Alabi with the 17th. In Hinrich’s defense, he’s a smart guard and only has two years left on his contract. And, his streaky shooting touch might keep us in games next year. This scenario isn’t at all out of the realm of possibility, given that just yesterday, the Oklahoma City picked up Daequon Cook and Miami’s 18th pick in the draft for the Thunder’s 32nd pick. Miami just gave that pick away! Where were the Wizards? Hopefully, we were waiting patiently to make the right move at the right time, even if it means doing nothing at all before 7pm tonight.
As this morning’s armchair GM, I would like to see the Wizards close out the draft by taking a chance on any combination of Washington SF Quincy Pondexter, WVU SF Devin Ebanks, Clemson PF Trevor Booker, Texas C Dexter Pittman, and UTEP PF Derrick Caracter who has Lamar Scrodom-like versatility and a good feel for the game.
In Grunfeld We Trust. Bring on the draft.
 Prada, Mike. “Recapping Ted Leonsis’ press conference .” Bullets Forever. N.p., 10 Jun 2010. Web. 20 Jun 2010. <http://www.bulletsforever.com/2010/6/10/1511794/recapping-ted-leonsis-press>.
 “Ted Thompson.” Packers.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jun 2010. <http://www.packers.com/team/staff/thompson_ted/>.
 “Ted Leonsis News Conference.” Washington Capitals. N.p., 10 Jun 2010. Web. 20 Jun 2010. <http://capitals.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=531462>.
 Miller, Chris. “@cmillscsn.” Twitter. N.p., 03 Jun 2010. Web. 21 Jun 2010. <http://www.twitlonger.com/show/1l9ath>.
 “Wizards have Miller’s loyalties … for now.” FanNation: Truth and Rumors – NBA. N.p., 16 Apr 2010. Web. 21 Jun 2010. <http://www.fannation.com/truth_and_rumors/view/178533-wizards-have-millers-loyalties-for-now>.
 Leonsis, Ted. “Not Loathe to do Anything — An Open Note to Wizards Fans.” Ted’s Take. N.p., 22 Jun 2010. Web. 23 Jun 2010. <http://www.tedstake.com/2010/06/22/not-loathe-to-do-anything-an-open-note-to-wizards-fans/>.