In the seeming eyes of fans, media, Internet trolls and bar room sports pundits, Ernie Grunfeld should lie awake in his bed at night, restless over what to do with the sixth pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. The Wizards slipped two whole spots from where they finished the season to achieve No. 6 on Tuesday night, and the team president of basketball operations better put it to good use.
But it’s not all about this draft and this pick, it’s about the move behind the move which begets two more moves. Grunfeld should be up late into the evening, but not because he’s worried for his job, because he’s doing his homework. Because he and his team are adapting their creativity. Because he must be able to assess players beyond skills and exhaust trust in analysis to the statistical end. Because of course the pressure is still on.
A look across the NBA landscape yields a wide set of diverse circumstances: Aging dynasties, teams close to the next level, teams looking to rebuild, teams wondering where to go, and teams searching for how. Each of these situations must be ready to adapt to what will be a drastically different structure on the other side of the NBA’s pending labor issue.
With hype mounting for the 2011 draft, albeit a deemed weak one, as the last fun act of the league before the current CBA expires on June 30, beads of sweat may develop on Grunfeld’s brow due to the spotlight. But with a relatively secure position to manage the Wizards generally – likely for the next two seasons — it will be all about how Grunfeld can use a post-lockout environment to Washington’s advantage.
The Wizards have young and promising assets (unfortunately, several hold considerably more value to their current team than to others), draft picks and potentially minimal salary on the future books. Impatience toward the way to achieve success should be tempered by the fact that at least Washington has flexibility.
With so much uncertainty, there seems to be a solid known in walking down Ted Leonsis’ path to winning. First, let’s establish a reasonably low definition of winning: make the playoffs for at least five consecutive seasons within the next eight years, get bounced in the first round no more than twice, make the conference finals at least once. Seems humble, yet unimaginable unless you were born a fan of the franchise in the 1960s.
But for discussions on a championship level, the rebuild around John Wall commands another superstar, as many will gladly point out.
Wall is no LeBron James. He’s no Kevin Durant, no Kobe Bryant no Dirk Nowitzki. He might be a Derrick Rose, one day, but even Rose, a League MVP, will never be able to win a championship alone with Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng as his supporting cast. This sentiment could come back to bite me, but I doubt it.
At the very end of the third quarter in Wednesday night’s Heat-Bulls game, when Rose jetted with the ball past Dwyane Wade only to be thwarted by an imposing James while Wade caught up and poked a steal from behind, it was evident that Rose is depended upon too much for his team to win. He needs high-caliber help.
Like Rose, Wall can be “the” leader and a perfectly sensible point guard to put pieces around. Like Rose, he needs someone else who can be trusted with the ball, someone who can make opposing defenses shift their game plan.
A second superstar isn’t on Washington’s roster right now. And unless the Wizards are leaning on having magical luck one day in the NBA lottery again, or are planning to become worse, that second superstar isn’t coming through the draft.
This is where creativity counts. It’s not about the draft pick. It’s about issues such as a potential contract amnesty clause in a new CBA environment. If the Wizards and their ownership feel strongly that they will be able to get out from Rashard Lewis’ remaining contract counting toward the future cap, might they be willing to take on something more reasonable in the interim through a trade?
What about a hard cap? Say it’s set much lower, but implemented on a delay in 12, 24, 36 months. Might some teams be desperate to deal talent? With plenty of cap space, Grunfeld could again take advantage of other teams’ willingness/need to purge (a la the LeBron chase last summer) with a move that could lineup more team-building.
Constructing through the draft is an earnest and admirable concept. It requires patience, diligence and luck. But eventually teams reach a saturation point with youth to develop. The Wizards are teetering close to this point, but still seem far away from the winning prominence necessary to strongly consider other, more veteran options.
Still, with five second year players potentially on the roster next season (if Hamady N’diaye is retained), six and third year players (Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee respectively) who have mostly displayed the mental fortitude and maturity of high-schoolers, a fourth-year player in Nick Young who has displayed nice improvement but is still psychologically fragility, and a creaky-kneed veteran in Rashard Lewis entering his 13th NBA season, can the Wizards really afford to take on two or three more rookies?
To get Kendrick Perkins, the Oklahoma City Thunder had to trade one of their own cultivated draft picks, Jeff Green, and a 2012 first rounder they stock-piled from the L.A. Clippers. To get help for their MVP, the Chicago Bulls had to throw $75 million over five years to Carlos Boozer, which was aided by trading the 17th pick in 2010 and Kirk Hinrich to Washington for next to nothing. To get Pau Gasol, the L.A. Lakers sent Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol and two first round draft picks to Memphis. But yes, those teams also found Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Kobe and Andrew Bynum through the draft.
No need to get in a rush. Patience continues to be key. Ernie Grunfeld has a window of comfort, decent assets and budding opportunity. Again, it’s not all about this one draft and recovering from the disappointment in picking sixth. But if the NBA front-office veteran wants to reestablish a good reputation around the league, his time on the clock starts now, especially if he wants to be around when it’s time to eschew dreams of the draft and put up or shut up.
No franchise wants to field a team middling between barely in the playoffs and barely outside the lottery. If John Wall, whose rookie contract won’t last forever, doesn’t get a legit running mate in the next two or three seasons, that’s exactly where the Wizards will be.