How to Alienate Players and Lose a Lot of Games: The Washington Wizards Way
[Ed. Note: This is the ‘official’ TAI debut of Conor Dirks, longtime Wizards fan, Maryland transplant in the ATL. Follow him on Twitter: @ConorDDirks. -Kyle W.]
In the last 10 years, the Wizards have had exactly one general manager, former NBA player Ernest Grunfeld. During Ernie’s tenure, the Wizards have amassed 475 losses, which is good for the second-most losses (tonight’s opponent, Minnesota, has the most) and third-worst winning percentage in the NBA over the last 10 years. The reason for the discrepancy between total losses and percentage is appropriately sad: the Charlotte Bobcats didn’t exist during Grunfeld’s first year with Washington.
It would be irresponsible to hold one individual wholly accountable for the failure of an organization with so many moving parts. However, after the trade of Jordan Crawford, and a recent history riddled with failed player development, it’s appropriate to try to ascertain what has gone wrong.
Bad draft picks and failed draft picks are not one and the same. Many of Ernie Grunfeld’s draft-day acquisitions have gone on to play significant roles in the NBA. However, the Wizards under Ernie Grunfeld have shown a complete lack of ability to develop and retain valuable players. Washington has also, during Grunfeld’s tenure, become notorious for dysfunction. This dysfunction isn’t endemic to D.C.’s team (see: Sacramento Kings), but the Verizon Center might be its headquarters.
It’ll be Great, I Promise
Flip Saunders was hired in April 2009 to coach a veteran team that had fallen on hard times. Before the season, the Wizards traded the fifth overall pick in the draft (a pick which would subsequently become Ricky Rubio) to the Minnesota Timberwolves for two NBA journeymen: Randy Foye and Mike Miller. Gilbert Arenas, signed to a gigantic contract in the 2008 Summer after a serious knee injury, headlined a team that featured Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison as well. While many believe that Grunfeld would not have traded the fifth pick if he believed Rubio would be available, the timing of the trade made it impossible for the team to cover its bases. The Wizards opened the season with a team that reflected, more than the organization ever admitted, Abe Pollin’s misguided (but certainly well-meant) belief that a flawed core group of players could somehow exceed their limitations and take the Wizards past the second round of the playoffs.
But by February 2010, the point was moot. Washington fans weren’t able to see any of the aforementioned core players on the court. Arenas was suspended for the rest of the season, and the fire sale which followed his suspension saw the complete dismemberment of a core which had once been exciting and representative of the highest level of playoff success the franchise had experienced in decades. With the organization itself in flux after the death of Abe Pollin in November 2009, Grunfeld decided to feature his young players: JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Andray Blatche.
“I didn’t sign up for this,” said Flip Saunders, on several occasions, after his veteran team was blown to pieces. As we’ve seen recently with the fraying and eventual fracture of the interpersonal relationship between Randy Wittman and Jordan Crawford, matching the style of an NBA coach with players available to take the court on a given night can completely redefine the player’s role on a team. In the second half of the 2009-10 season, young players were given the run of the place. Andray Blatche led the team in total minutes (2,256) by a wide margin. This was, of course, “by design,” according to Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. Yes, it’s true, Leonsis evidently once comforted John Wall, and the D.C. community, with the soothing thought of developing Wall on an admittedly bad team with heavy minutes from Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche, all of whom we’ll discuss later.
Rate of Return
Let’s take a closer look at what Washington “got” for their stars. In return for Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson, Grunfeld brought in Drew Gooden, Josh Howard, Quinton Ross, and James Singleton. Four days later, Gooden was traded, along with Antawn Jamison (to the Clippers and Cavaliers, respectively) for a late first-round draft pick, the rights to Emir Preldzic, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Al Thornton. Ilgauskas never played for the Wizards, and the first-rounder became Lazar Hayward.
Hayward was traded with Nemanja Bjelica to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Trevor Booker and Hamady N’Diaye. Ross was traded for Yi Jianlian and cash. Preldzic still plays in Turkey. In short, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson became Josh Howard, James Singleton, Lazar Hayward, Emir Preldzic, Al Thornton, Trevor Booker, and Yi Jianlian. Only one of those players became a long-term member of the Wizards, and that player (Booker) has been in and out of Randy Wittman’s rotation, many times failing to leave the bench. Not exactly a king’s bounty.
Gilbert Arenas was traded to the Orlando Magic for Rashard Lewis, who was completely ineffective during his time with Washington, but was then traded to New Orleans for Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor last summer. Both of these players have contributed to Washington’s success this year after Wall’s return, but both carry a heavy price tag, one that many argue will cripple the Wizards financially during free agency. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey is a good example of a team builder who knows when to deal, and while any individual trade made by Morey may not be impressive, the incremental improvement of both the assets of the team, and the team itself, shows how seemingly low-value players or picks can eventually be flipped into meaningful contributors. Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated puts it well:
“In February 2009, during the middle of a playoff push, Morey traded his starting point guard, 32-year-old Rafer Alston, for the Grizzlies’ backup playmaker, Kyle Lowry. This allowed Aaron Brooks, whom the Rockets chose with the 26th pick in 2007, to start. After Brooks became a 19-point-a-game scorer, Morey flipped him to the Suns for another unproven backup point, Goran Dragic. Lowry took over as the starter and developed into a better player than either of his predecessors, becoming so valuable that Morey flipped him to the Raptors for a protected first-round pick this summer, which in turn became the key piece in the Harden deal.”
The Rockets, like the Wizards, were faced with restructuring after an unfortunate, uncontrollable event. In their case, it was Yao’s injury and subsequent retirement. But unlike the Wizards, the Rockets decided to avoid a painful “rebuilding” phase of several years by staying competitive, and improving through incremental trades. Chandler Parsons, acquired in December 2011, is currently Houston’s longest-tenured player. John Wall, drafted first overall before the 2010 season, is Washington’s longest-tenured player. Houston, unlike Washington, quickly rebuilt (or, rather, reformatted) their team for long-term success in just about a year and a half. The Wizards “blew up” their team over three years ago, and are still drawing up the blueprint.
In the days leading up to the 2005 NBA Draft, Andray Blatche spent much of his time highlighting his unique skill-set to scouts, frustrating many by focusing on unorthodox skills for NBA big men. He and his agent were so convinced that he would be chosen in the lottery that they canceled workouts with some teams drafting outside the top 15. Instead, the Wizards, with their only pick, chose him at No. 49, well within the confines of the second round. Scouts noted that Blatche was “prone to emotional outbursts” and that he preferred to play on the perimeter, despite what coaches thought was appropriate.
DraftExpress’s Jonathan Givony wrote, after Nick Young’s Sweet 16 game with USC in 2007, that he “was too often the last stop in the flow of his team’s offense, receiving the ball, but never making any real effort to create for anyone else.” Of JaVale McGee, in 2008, DraftExpress again: “[McGee] looks very disinterested at times, doesn’t hustle, gives up on plays, late getting back down the floor, and might be the worst man to man defender we’ve ever evaluated in the post.” Of course, it was noted by many that McGee was a GM’s dream due to his “potential.” But just like Young and Blatche, the exact same problems which plagued him in D.C. were present before he arrived.
Every player coming into the NBA has weaknesses, but many overcome them. Wizard draftees, including even John Wall, have been unable to do so. Blatche, playing the primary scorer’s role for the Wizards, clashed with Flip Saunders on several occasions, most notably when he refused to re-enter a game. His inability to develop a post game, and insistence on perimeter play, led to unusually low field goal percentages for a player at his position. Saunders expressed dissatisfaction with Blatche’s progression, dissatisfaction which eerily echoes pre-draft scouting reports, in early 2010:
“I’d like more for Andray to stay around the basket. He keeps floating back out, the reason we want to go that way is to have a big that we can put down there. He has to establish himself as a low block type scorer. In the fourth quarter, if you think you’re going to go behind the back at 15 feet on Tim Duncan, who’s been all league for 15 years, and get a shot off? That’s not going to happen, and he ends up shooting it on the side of the board.”
During the next preseason, the problems lingered. Here’s Andray, after being told that Coach Saunders wanted to “get his big butt” down on the block:
“I mean, I can work on it if … I don’t know … that’s tough. I don’t really want to get into all that. It’s tough for me to stay on the block when I’m setting a lot of picks. You know, I’m just going through the flow of the game. A lot of guys are sagging off and I’m just reading the defense.”
This isn’t a rookie learning the game. Blatche was unable, for whatever reason, to process “stay down low” after five years in the NBA. As for the “emotional outburst” aspect of Blatche’s scouting report? After his infamous “This is your captain” speech before the 2011-12 season opener, Andray proceeded to perform terribly, and then indirectly criticize his coach and team in a heavily ironic post-game interview:
“I need the ball in the paint to be effective. You can’t keep having me pick and pop and shooting jump shots. Give me the ball in the paint, that’s where I’m most effective at. I’ve been saying that since training camp.”
When Saunders was fired (mercifully), he had been wholly unsuccessful in harnessing the strengths of his young players, and his public urgings for more effort only served to damage his influence on the team. At the time of Saunders’ departure, the criticisms leveled at Blatche, McGee and Young were identical to the ones found in their pre-draft scouting reports.
Instead of hiring a coach that would be better equipped to handle a team which now featured yet another set of young players, new owner Ted Leonsis and Grunfeld decided to promote Wittman. Randy, among other things, was originally hired to be an assistant coach for a veteran team, a team which presumably knew how to be professional, knew the foundation of NBA ball, and knew how to tap into their strengths as individual players. Wittman, more of a holistic game-planner and motivator than a nuanced instructor, has also struggled to develop young players with a roster that at one time featured eight players on their rookie deals.
Leonsis and Wittman share a respect for program-based team dynamics, and the organization, which was beset by ridicule from the national media, rallied around Wittman’s no-nonsense approach. The team responded, too, especially after dealing away Nick Young and JaVale McGee. Hopes were so high after a six-game winning streak to end last season that Leonsis was moved to excise what he thought was the last remaining impediment to team cohesion, Andray Blatche, via the amnesty provision, while his team was in Las Vegas participating in Summer League.
Since then, all three players have found a modicum of success with new teams, perhaps Blatche most of all, when compared with his last days being booed and receiving “DNP – Conditioning” marks as a member of the Wizards. However, none of them have truly excelled. Comparing their play with the Wizards to performance with a subsequent club may not be the best exercise. If there is something wrong with Washington’s system of player development, it may well be that players are irrevocably harmed, stunted, by their experience with the Wizards. Noting a lack of future excellence does not excuse the initial failure to develop talent, nor does it hold that the players actually lacked the potential which made them sought after by NBA teams.
There is no simple solution to a development problem. A player like Bradley Beal may exude confidence, and impress with his innate ability and understanding of the game while fellow lottery pick Jan Vesely struggles to even catch a ball when inserted into a high-speed NBA contest. But both will need to be developed, and the Wizards have shown very little, if any, ability to grow a player within their organization. What’s to say that Kawhi Leonard, a player often offered up as a better choice for the Wizards 6th pick in the 2011 draft (a pick which became Vesely), would be excelling in Washington right now? Just because a player develops well with a different team doesn’t mean they would, by reason of that success, find it similarly in other NBA settings. San Antonio, where Leonard landed instead of D.C., has historically great success in drafting young players and developing them into starters on a perennial championship contender. It is too simplistic to emphasize that the Wizards merely drafted the wrong people.
Some, maybe even the majority, of the blame for their failure to launch rests with the players. The problem with blaming the players, though, is that they aren’t metamorphic; those paying attention could, and did, identify the issues which eventually led to their exile from D.C. Potential is a key aspect of talent evaluation, but GMs should be evaluating players in conjunction with the talent they possess. There is much more to player evaluation than stats, measurables, and eye-popping athleticism. Grunfeld, even in a league filled with GMs who salivate over potential, seems to have an unhealthy predilection for the stuff.
Ultimately the responsibility to recognize red flags with character, and provide for the amelioration of those flaws, falls to the GM and coach, respectively. The alternative to integration, for the Wizards, has been to alienate players struggling to live up to expectations. While this conveniently shifts public blame away from coaches and team executives and onto “bad character” players, it is detrimental to team building, the development of the player and, eventually, to the value of the player on the trade market.
That Escalated QuicklyWe may never know what went on behind closed doors, but the public perception of Jordan Crawford up until he was benched permanently by Wittman was not that of a “cancer.” He may have been considered eccentric, sometimes grumpy after a game for no reason, and infinitely quotable, but was not considered a source of discord. There was no doubt, though, that as the minutes dwindled and transformed into a series of “DNP-Coach’s Decision” results, that Crawford was quickly checking out.
What may have started as an avuncular attempt to effect change in Crawford’s decision-making through “tough love” quickly became deleterious, and within just a few weeks, the relationship between Crawford and Wittman completely bottomed out. From hitting a game-winner in Portland and being mobbed by his ecstatic teammates to posting up at the end of the bench in full warm-ups, Crawford’s role diminished and then just disappeared. As Ernie Grunfeld spun it after Crawford was traded, Jordan suddenly “did not fit into our current plans … or our future plans.” A new big three announced its arrival — touted by Leonsis from his blogging mountaintop — and later slipped noiselessly into the void.
When news surfaced that the Wizards were actively shopping Crawford, few were surprised. The surprise didn’t come until the final day that players were eligible to be traded. This year, the Wizards were happy to improve the team by removing Crawford from it. Of course, there are some modest cap savings, and those dollars may become important, but for now? Neither player received in the trade will contribute to this team. While John Wall and Nene were injured, Crawford headlined (or hijacked, depending on your viewpoint) Washington’s offense, and while he displayed several flaws (such as his lack of compunction in taking absurd, offense-flatlining shots), he also kept the Wizards in many games with his scoring. Scorers, especially young ones, will always command value in the NBA. And yet Nick Young was shipped out for a second round pick and Brian Cook (yikes!). Jordan Crawford got his ticket out of town for Leandro Barbosa, his crutches, and Jason Collins.
Some may point to the acquisition of Nene in a trade for JaVale McGee as the outlier here, but consider Denver’s motivation for the trade. Having just signed Nene to a hefty, and long contract, Denver experienced buyer’s remorse. Nene is very effective, but a history of nagging injuries, a tendency to turn the ball over, and a big contract don’t always combine to make sunshine and lollipops. So far, the trade has been a success for the Wizards, but they were forced into taking a big risk, while Denver acquired a young player with potential and an expiring contract (which, to be fair, they renewed at a premium).
Unfortunately, Nene is the exception, not the rule. The organization has been almost exclusively unable to turn young assets (either through development or trade) into productive, long-term members of the team. The most egregious example might be Blatche (affectionately known as “Baltche” by nihilists everywhere). In return for the seven years of “development” the Wizards bestowed on Blatche, the team earned the rights to pay him to play for Brooklyn.
So Here We Are
For now, the Wizards are a group full of “team players” who have “bought in” to Randy Wittman’s system. It is easy to label Crawford, McGee, Young, Blatche, and even Arenas as players who “didn’t fit” or more perniciously, “didn’t want to be here.” One has to wonder, though, whether these labels are appropriate, or whether they are a product of an organization scrambling to explain a series of failed projects, projects that were once propped up as pieces of a legitimate basketball product. Players have a vested interest in success. It translates, in the NBA, almost directly to salary increases. Players don’t start out as “bad fits” or as malcontents within an organization. If they did, they wouldn’t be acquired.
Recent success will temporarily stay criticism of both Wittman and Grunfeld (and indirectly, Leonsis, too) but how tenuous is this optimism? For that matter, how tenuous are the good graces of Wizards brass? Longtime fans will remember the Gungate Wizards, who were expected to make the playoffs: after Arenas was suspended, he quickly became persona non grata, and all the posters came down. It may have been an honest sentiment, but when Gilbert was traded, it was noted incorrectly by Leonsis that Arenas had “traded himself.” Dagger. Appropriate as it may have been to move on, Arenas was a legitimate All-Star player, and put the Wizards on the map. It’s not an easy, or perfect, parallel to draw, but if John Wall fails to develop, how will he be characterized? Who should shoulder the blame for unrealized potential?
Meanwhile, team president Ernie Grunfeld seems insulated from his failure to draft talent which can be effectively developed and retained. Characterizing players as “knuckleheads” who create a culture of losing is only fair if you consider the individual who invited them all to the table and presented them with a host who didn’t speak their language. One can only hope that no-brainers like Wall and Beal will be enough to change Washington’s fortunes. Because we all know what happens when there is a question of who the team should draft … it starts with Peter John Ramos and ends somewhere between Oleksiy Pecherov and Jan Vesely.