[Remember planking? Or is G-Wiz just dead on Ted Leonsis' desk?]
Here at the 2012 NBA All-Star break, exactly halfway through Ted Leonsis’ three-year rebuilding plan, it’s hard to think about the future of the Washington Wizards without contemplating how they got here. Before this season, Leonsis stated that he wanted to rip the rear-view mirrors off his Ferrari of a franchise and only look forward. The glaring metaphorical omissions by the owner being, a) he may have made modifications to the car, but he didn’t change the driver, team president Ernie Grunfeld, and b) no race car driver would ever compete without a way to see behind them, else they put themselves in an unnecessarily dangerous situation. And we wonder why the Wizards are where they are now.
Teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Utah Jazz have been broken down and are now stocked with better future talent than the Wizards. The Cavaliers only got a trade exception, a couple future first-round picks and a couple second-round picks from Miami in return for LeBron James. But the key to their current situation was sending Mo Williams and Jamario Moon to the Los Angeles Clippers for Baron Davis and a 2011 first round pick. That pick turned out to be the first overall selection, Kyrie Irving. Combined with Cleveland’s fourth pick, Tristan Thompson, and whatever player development they have working in their favor (really, look at Cleveland’s roster and tell me it’s more talented than the Wizards), the Cavaliers have achieved post-LeBron promise faster than anyone expected.
The Jazz were able to parlay Deron Williams off on Jay-Z and the Russians for a bounty of prospects — Derrick Favors and two first-round picks. One of those picks netted Utah Enes Kanter third overall in last year’s draft, and they used their own ninth pick to select Gordon Hayward in 2010. Utah also simply had a better core of players and better player development in place. They found Paul Millsap with the 47th overall pick in 2006. Al Jefferson came from Minnesota in a July 2010 exchange for Kosta Koufos, a first-round pick that turned out to be Donatas Motiejunas, and another future first-rounder. In rebuilding past the Deron Williams-Andrei Kirilenko-Mehmet Okur-Carlos Boozer core that was swept by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2010 Western Conference semi-finals, Utah put better veterans in place to support the young core now in development.
Meanwhile, Leonsis, before this season, said, “Ernie and I are in lock step,” the owner previously boasting that his team president did everything that was asked of him in preparation for the current rebuilding plan. But Grunfeld’s contract ends after this season with no talk of an extension, and his accomplishments amount to the bare minimum. He cleared away haphazard contracts that he and Abe Pollin gave out in fruitless, ignorant attempts to achieve championship success. He then took advantage of a truly unique market situation: the Summer of LeBron and teams shedding salary to chase him. Cap space and the conduit of Kirk Hinrich essentially created Jordan Crawford, Kevin Seraphin and Chris Singleton out of nothing.
But the primary and secondary core foundation Grunfeld created in previous attempts for success cannot be ignored. After a disastrous 19-win 2008-09 season in which Washington suffered what amounted to season-long injuries to All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas and starting center Brendan Haywood, Grunfeld doubled-down on his core. He gambled the fifth overall pick in 2009 to add Mike Miller and Randy Foye to the roster he had built. Pollin had run a losing franchise since the beginning of the 80s, and Grunfeld was doing his part to continue the run. Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison were good guys in Abe’s eyes, championship potential notwithstanding; when it came to his favorite sons, D.C.’s “Big 3,” it was a championship or bust.
“I’m a big Flip Saunders believer, but I also believe the Wiz have overrated their talent — who else goes all-in after winning 19 games?” wrote ESPN’s John Hollinger in a season preview for the 2009-10 Wizards. In the same preview, ESPN’s Marc Stein opined, “Even as a longtime Flip fan, allow me to tap the breaks. The Arenas/Butler/Jamison core had a limited ceiling even at their youthful and healthiest best.” I, however, tried to believe. Blame the fan in me. And thus it is hard to consider Washington’s situation with that of Utah and Cleveland for a number of reasons.
Still, you know what Grunfeld ultimately got in exchange for his “contending core” of Gilbert Arenas, DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller, and Randy Foye? In total: Rashard Lewis, Trevor Booker and Emir Preldzic. If you want to talk about Arenas and his locker room guns bringing down the team, you should, again, point a finger (or two) back at Grunfeld. It is well-known that he led an environment conducive and nourishing of Arenas’ hijinks which so often drew attention to trivial matters aside from basketball. No one remembers the 2009-10 Wizards having a record of 10-21 going into Arenas’ final appearance that season – the “finger guns game” in Philadelphia on January 5.
Grunfeld’s leadership also allowed Arenas to tell lies in the aftermath of initial gun reports that surfaced on December 26, 2009. Remember? It was all for the kids, and not the macho “gun pointing with Javaris Crittenton” story that came out on Jan 1, 2010. But Grunfeld’s tolerance of a precarious culture with Arenas goes deeper. In January 2010, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports wrote, “…sources say [Eddie] Jordan often felt undermined by general manager Ernie Grunfeld when it came to Arenas. Jordan pushed Arenas to defend, to be a complete player, and never felt he got the backing he needed when Arenas grumbled to upper management.”
Getting to Grunfeld’s secondary core, the young players supposed to populate around team veterans, learning and ready to assume the reigns of success as the older players start to sunset their careers. That secondary core of Andray Blatche, Nick Young and JaVale McGee are now the upstanding leaders of today’s Wizards. Thirteen combined NBA seasons of experience (six, four and three respectively) and not one has shown the ability to be a true leader, a team captain. No, that’s left to the overly-pouty 2010 first overall pick with tons of promise – perhaps all the franchise has – John Wall. There are some nice role players on Washington’s roster, but it says something when only one of the Wizards’ seven first- or second-year players took part in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night. Meanwhile, Blatche, Young and McGee have best displayed combinations of lazy, selfish and dumb. Their underdeveloped basketball sense is now infecting the next generation, all under Grunfeld’s watch.
I still believe Ted Leonsis is the right owner for both the Wizards and the Capitals. The city of Washington is lucky to have an owner who understands that his teams are pillars of the community. Sure, his blogging can be absurd, at times carrying a “one day I will have told you so” tone. I get it, he’s trying to be transparent, but his assessments are often far from honest, because much of Leonsis’ utility, when it comes blogging about his basketball team, is clouded by buzz words and feel goods. We want to encourage the incorrigible Andray Blatche by giving him extension! Yay us! I’m sure the D.C. clubs were happy.
“I see the rebuild taking three full seasons,” wrote Leonsis on his blog in March 2011, reiterating on Ted’s Take in January 2012 that one season was already in the books, John Wall’s rookie season. Lockout aftereffects notwithstanding, which every NBA team is dealing with, this is the halfway point of Leonsis rebuilding plan. But in reality, the Wizards franchise will begin the second half of 2011-12 in no better of a situation than they were at the beginning of the season, or even at the beginning of last season, or, really, since the beginning of the 2008-09 season.
Hopefully Leonsis is contemplating the reality of the situation long and hard. Is it right to only stubbornly look forward, not considering the track record of those driving the vehicle? Has his three-year plan even truly commenced? Because at the supposed midway point, it still can’t be going as he expected. Something is severely wrong with the culture of this team, and one can’t help but wonder… Does Leonsis think he’s doing enough?