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Ernie Grunfeld: Offensive for Over a Decade, How’d He Get So Defensive? (Pt. 1)
[This is Part One of a two-part post on Washington Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld looking back at his almost 25-year tenure making player personnel decisions in the National Basketball Association. Part Two can be read here.]
“I told you I was going to get
the best brains in basketball.”
—Abe Pollin, former owner, upon hiring Ernie Grunfeld in July 2003
The direction of the Washington Wizards changed drastically and rapidly during the 2003 summer. Team owner Abe Pollin sent Michael Jordan and his cigars packing in a Mercedes and peeling out into the sunset. Meanwhile in Wisconsin, it was known that Senator Herb Kohl wanted to sell his Milwaukee Bucks, and it only took weeks for a group centered around Jordan to become the primary potential buyer. In an intriguing maneuver, Kohl, with his intentions to sell well-known, arranged to release Bucks GM Ernie Grunfeld from the last year of his contract so he could seek other options (after Grunfeld conducted the 2003 draft, Kohl stipulated). Other teams, such as the Portland Trailblazers, were rumored to be interested in Grunfeld, but Pollin and Kohl had several talks over the matter in the days after the draft, and Washington quickly developed as the likely destination. Within hours of Kohl officially releasing Grunfeld, it also became public that he was backing out of selling the Bucks to Jordan. Kohl did not provide much insight into the reasoning behind his decision, opting to take his team off the market altogether.
It was never clear if Kohl was afraid Michael Jordan would move the Bucks from Wisconsin. Or if Jordan’s people thought the asking price to be too high and the market too risky. Or if Pollin’s words to Kohl about his experience with Jordan had an influence. What’s clear is that Kohl still owns the Bucks today.
As the events unfolded in Washington, Pollin already had a new coach to replace Doug Collins. Eddie Jordan was one of the most sought-after assistants in the NBA. His offensive mind helped guide the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back conference championships in 2002 and 2003. Eddie Jordan’s coaching style implemented elements of the Princeton offense, such as back-cuts and reading and reacting to the defense, applied to the pace of the professional game. The coach’s offense also called for positionless personnel, an NBA trend at the time.
Similar to in Milwaukee, Grunfeld’s hand was waiting for him when he sat at the table in D.C. With Eddie Jordan in the fold, the new leader of basketball operations had an edict to build around offense.
He inherited a rookie class of Jarvis Hayes and Steve Blake; second-year players Jared Jeffries, Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter; and third-year players Kwame Brown, Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas (Thomas was drafted a year prior to Brown and Haywood all but missed his entire rookie season in Dallas with a broken toe). Grunfeld’s main veterans were Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes and Christian Laettner. As landing the position coincided with the start of the free agency period that summer, Grunfeld immediately used his wits to steal the offensive-minded Gilbert Arenas away from the Golden State Warriors. The loophole Grunfeld used to get Golden State’s 2001 second round pick and the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2003 was closed in the subsequent Collective Bargaining Agreement, now known as the “Gilbert Arenas Provision.”
“Those of you that have said that Mr. Pollin is over-the-hill,
incompetent and doesn’t know what he’s doing.
I think we proved that we still know what we’re doing.”
—Abe Pollin on getting Eddie Jordan, Hayes, Blake, and Grunfeld
Pollin was originally said to be courting Larry Brown or Jeff Van Gundy to coach his team, offering either one power when it came to personnel decisions, but ultimately seemed enthused about his summer catch.
“I’m 4-for-4. Those are the two guys [Grunfeld and Jordan] that I wanted to head the organization, and the day of the draft I met with Eddie and Wes [Unseld]. We spoke for hours. And those are the two guys [Hayes and Blake] we hoped to get, and we got them,” said Pollin.
“In any winning organization, the first thing you need is to create a positive environment,” Grunfeld told the media in Washington when hired. “We want to create a professional, hard-working environment, where players will work hard and be respected. In turn, they will be accountable for what they do. You have to have that.” Little did Grunfeld know what the future would bring.
While inheriting offensive environments in Milwaukee and Washington, Grunfeld’s New York Knicks teams were quite different. He spent 17 homegrown years in the Knicks organization and was provided with a defensive core of Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley by the time he started making personnel decisions at the onset of the 1990s. The Knicks under Grunfeld’s direction never once finished outside of the NBA’s top four in defense (measured by Defensive Rating (DefRtg), the amount of points allowed per 100 possessions; New York’s average league rank during his time: 2.4). On the other side of the ball, Grunfeld’s Knicks averaged an 18th ranking in Offensive Rating (OffRtg – points scored per 100 possessions) in the NBA from 1991 to 1999.
After 1999, Grunfeld’s script was flipped. During the subsequent 13-year span, it was offense, locked and loaded, sometimes quite literally. Now, with Washington’s team complexion drastically changed in 2013, there’s a chance that the beleaguered team president can finally get back to building around what wins championships: Defense.
>>Sometimes the Big Apple Bites Back
“His fall from the organization was even more meteoric than his rise,” wrote columnist Mike Wise about Grunfeld for the New York Times in November 1999. Wise:
“Since he retired as a Knicks player in 1985, Grunfeld had been consistently promoted in the organization. From marginal forward to radio analyst, assistant coach, general manager and, finally, team president, Grunfeld ascended the ladder quickly.
“There were questionable signings and draft picks, and overpaid players, along the way. But he had also rebuilt the Knicks on the fly in 1996 — trading for Larry Johnson and signing Chris Childs and Allan Houston as free agents. Flaws aside, he had presided over a perennial playoff team that came within a game of winning the championship in 1994.”
On April 20, 1999, Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts called Grunfeld to dinner in White Plains, N.Y. and fired him. Well, he didn’t exactly fire him, Checketts demoted Grunfeld to a “special consultant” for the Knicks, 21-21 at the time with eight games left in a lockout-shortened season. New York then won six of their last eight and advanced all the way to the NBA Finals, losing to the San Antonio Spurs.“Depending on your perspective, he was either the scapegoat who had enough foresight to build a National Basketball Association finalist, or the meddling team executive who wanted Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy’s head to roll before his own,” opined Wise. Van Gundy, and most New Yorkers, were unhappy that Grunfeld, in separate moves prior to the start of the 1999 season, traded favorites John Starks and Charles Oakley for Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby. When the Knicks struggled early in the year, it was said that Grunfeld didn’t think Van Gundy was using Camby right and that he wanted the coach gone.
It came down to a Broadway-style feud between GM and coach, and Checketts later admitted that he sided with the coach. The rift died down over time, but Van Gundy, now having been a television analyst for several years, has long amplified his criticism of Grunfeld’s Wizards.
There was some speculation that the Knicks might bring Grunfeld back to run basketball operations for 1999-00, but Grunfeld didn’t want to be fed to the New York media wolves anymore. Plus, Van Gundy was going to continue being the coach, and bygones were not yet bygones.
“I don’t look at it like I was run out of town,” Grunfeld told the New York Times, although conceding that the situation was awkward. “I think we did a lot of good things in New York. After that, I just came to a very good and positive situation [in Milwaukee].”
“His fall from the organization was
even more meteoric than his rise.”
—New York Times columnist Mike Wise on Ernie Grunfeld’s time with the New York Knicks
The Knicks paid-out a portion of the three years remaining on Grunfeld’s contract and let him go to the Bucks, where he was drafted and spent the first two seasons of his playing career. He left New York 397-227 (.636) over eight seasons and 61-44 in the playoffs, losing in the conference semi-finals five times, losing in the conference finals once, and losing in the NBA Finals twice. Grunfeld was courted by the Bucks early in his Knicks decision-making tenure in 1992, but then New York did enough to retain him. The second time around was a different story.
>>Hot Shooting, Cold Milwaukee & Money Mase
When he joined the Bucks in 1999, Grunfeld inherited head coach George Karl, who was one season into his five-year tenure with Milwaukee (the ending of which ultimately coincided with Grunfeld’s departure). Grunfeld wasn’t granted decision-making autonomy, Karl was going to have his say. But according to the head coach, they were on the same page.
“I think we see the players the same way. He likes athletes, he likes speed, he likes defense,” said Karl upon Grunfeld’s arrival.
Karl was coming off a 28-22 record in a lockout-shortened 1998-99 season in which he guided the Bucks to their first playoff appearance in eight years (and a 3-0 sweep at the hands of the Indiana Pacers). Together, the duo had a veteran squad: Ray Allen was heading into his fourth season, Sam Cassell into his seventh, Glenn Robinson into his sixth, and Tim Thomas into his third. In Grunfeld’s first summer at the helm, he added 16-year vet Dale Ellis, 11-year vet Danny Manning, nine-year vet J.R. Reid, and of course, Darvin Ham. Those Bucks finished 42-40 and again lost to the Pacers in the first round, this time 3-2.
Grunfeld’s big moves heading into his second season were exchanging Vinny Del Negro, J.R. Reid and Robert Traylor for Jason Caffey and Billy Owens; Grunfeld then flipped Owens for Lindsey Hunter. “We don’t expect him to average 20 points a game. … We expect him to make us tougher,” said Grunfeld about Caffey.
“He’s a guy we think is as good as anybody on our team as a low-post player,” said Karl. Caffey had lost his job to Antawn Jamison in Golden State and went on to become a nice role player for Milwaukee, as did Hunter.
In the draft, Grunfeld took Michael Redd in the second round, 43rd overall (his best pick ever), and drafted Jason Collier 15th overall, later exchanging him and a future 2001 first rounder (No. 22) for ninth overall pick Joel Przybilla. Behind health—Allen played 82 games, and Robinson/Cassell/Thomas each played in 76 games—those 2000-01 Bucks made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, finishing as the second seed with a 52-30 record. They took down Tracy McGrady’s Orlando Magic in four games, the Charlotte Hornets of Jamal Mashburn and Baron Davis in seven games, and ultimately lost to Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers in seven games, which lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals.
The Bucks were thought to be a piece away, but the kind of piece very key to winning a championship. “If you listed our top five weaknesses last season, toughness and rebounding would be in there,” said George Karl during the 2001 summer. The other Ervin Johnson, Scott Williams and Jason Caffey were nice, but the Bucks needed star presence in the paint.
So Grunfeld doubled-down on one combustible, familiar hand: Anthony Mason, a diamond-in-the-rough whom Grunfeld had uncovered in New York. Mason had just finished his 11th NBA season, one in which he made the All-Star team as a member of the Miami Heat (his only career All-Star appearance–in a free agent year, no less). In order to clear cap space to sign Mason, Grunfeld traded Scott Williams and a future 2004 first rounder (who turned out to be Josh Smith at 17) to Denver for a foreign guy who never suited up, Aleksandar Radojevic, and a 38-year old Kevin Willis. Willis was then flipped to Houston for a 2002 second rounder (who turned out to be Dan Gadzuric).
“He has done something that not many players have. He wanted to play in Milwaukee.”
—Bucks coach George Karl on Anthony Mason
Mason came with plenty of disclaimers, having once been suspended several games with the Knicks for a sideline shouting match with then-coach Pat Riley. About the move to get Mason, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal’s Michael Hunt wrote in September 2001:
“Yet Mason is the embodiment of a stone-sharpened double-edged sword. Though he can score, he doesn’t need to score to satisfy his fiery competitive nature. What he requires is to be constantly involved in the offense. Plays must run through him more than on an occasional basis to keep him happy, a real potential for conflict on a team already with three such egos.
“Then there is the matter of Mason’s considerable personal baggage. While playing for Charlotte, he was involved in three highly publicized incidents in his hometown of New York. An accusation of sexual assault by teenage girls was pleaded down, as were two nightclub brawls. The Bucks, at least under Herb Kohl’s watch, have been especially mindful of citizenship. Almost without exception, bad acts have been sent elsewhere.
“Presumably, the senator has more pressing matters on his mind at the moment than issuing a hiring approval for his diversionary enterprise. However, a team source indicated that Kohl is prepared to give his consent if the Bucks are able to get Mason.”
In his column, Hunt ultimately concluded that Mason was worth the risk.
“I like Mason with my three shooters and Tim Thomas as the sixth man. I think that’s a dynamite team,” Karl told the AP’s Chris Sheridan. It was both a crafty and desperate move by Grunfeld. Approaching training camp without a team, Mason was sticking to his demands of a five-year contract worth around $26 million, but the market was shrinking. Approaching the luxury threshold, the Heat didn’t even want their own All-Star back and were showing restraint from potential sign-and-trade moves. With players like Clarence Weatherspoon getting five-years, $28 million from the Knicks; Joe Smith six-years, $34 million from the Timberwolves; Corliss Williamson six-years, $33 million from the Pistons; and Antonio Davis six-years, $64 million from the Raptors already that summe—all out of Milwaukee’s price range—Grunfeld had little choice. With suitors for Mason coming down to his Bucks and the 76ers, Grunfeld had to pull the trigger. All GMs have to gamble at some point, it’s all in the game.
“Right now, he isn’t in shape. But he has done something that not many players have. He wanted to play in Milwaukee,” said Karl about Mason in late-November of that season, making a good point. Milwaukee is NBA Hell. Think of a worse destination; not even Charlotte, not even Sacramento. Jason Caffey had been vocal about not wanting to play in Milwaukee as a member of the Golden State Warriors, prior to being traded there. Gilbert Arenas once ripped Milwaukee as only Gilbert could, ‘LOL-ing’ via his NBA.com blog once because fellow Arizona alum Richard Jefferson got traded to the Bucks.
“That was probably personnel-wise one of our worst moves, because he wanted the ball all the time.”
—Ray Allen, in 2013, on Grunfeld’s Anthony Mason signing
Signing the 35-year old Mason to a four-year, $18-20 million contract understatedly didn’t work. Grunfeld failed to get a good read on Mason’s character. Karl called him out for showing up to training camp overweight and out of shape, while Mason vocalized his displeasure with his role in the offense. Mason did, however, play in all 82 games in 2001-02; while Allen missed 13, Robinson 16, and Cassell and Thomas eight each. Still, a small change in chemistry, and health, can throw an entire franchise off, as Wizards fans know.
“That was probably personnel-wise one of our worst moves, because he wanted the ball all the time. And we had a nice little flow going to what we were doing,” Ray Allen told the Palm Beach Post about Grunfeld’s Anthony Mason maneuver in April 2013.
“We were scoring fast, we were top two or three in scoring. And [Mason] came in and he just couldn’t understand the way we played. And there was just always friction. It made (coach) George Karl cater to what Mase was doing and what he wanted, and it took away from everything else we were doing.”
Milwaukee finished an even 41-41 and out of the 2002 playoffs. Mason wasn’t totally to blame, Tim Thomas had a disappointing year and a defense anchored by the aging Ervin Johnson became less dependable. Still, that effectively ended hope of winning with the Cassell-Allen-Robinson trio, at least in the eyes of Grunfeld; the head honcho stuck with his core a lot longer in D.C.
Barely a year after Milwaukee won 52 games and lost to the 76ers in the conference finals, Grunfeld tried to retool in the 2002 summer by trading Robinson, another traditionally cantankerous character himself, to the Atlanta Hawks for Tony Kukoc, the infamous Leon Smith (who was waived soon thereafter) and a 2003 first rounder. The Bucks middled at 42-40 and lost to the Nets, 4-2, in the first round of the 2003 playoffs—Milwaukee’s still-potent offense, ranked second in the league, was held in check by New Jersey.
Before the end of that 2002-03 season, the dismantling continued. With Redd developing amidst concerns about the luxury tax, Grunfeld traded Allen, Flip Murray, Kevin Ollie and a 2003 first round pick (14th overall, Luke Ridnour) to Seattle for Gary Payton and Desmond Mason at February ‘03 trade deadline. That summer, he selected a new point guard, T.J. Ford, using Atlanta’s 8th pick from the Robinson trade and sent Sam Cassell to the Timberwolves for Anthony Peeler and Joe Smith. The last two years and $9-10 million of the disruptive Mason’s contract were bought out. Mason’s NBA career, at that point, ended. To this day, his name remains on the Wisconsin Department of Revenue’s website for being delinquent on tax payments; Mason is listed as owing over $2.3 million.After conducting that 2003 draft for Kohl, Grunfeld’s four-year tenure in Milwaukee ended with 177 wins, 151 losses (.539 win percentage) and three playoff appearances (a 14-15 postseason record). He never built much, he only moved around parts, tried to make tweaks, quickly took the team on a downhill curve with Mason, and ultimately disassembled.
The Bucks of Grunfeld and Karl did field one of the NBA’s top offenses from 1999 to 2003; second best, in fact. It followed the pattern provided to Grunfeld in Milwaukee, mostly the result of Karl being coach. Milwaukee’s 108.2 Offensive Rating was second only to Dallas (109.1) over that four-year span. The Bucks were also the only team to shoot over 50 percent on Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) during Grunfeld’s run. Defense? Not so much. Milwaukee gave up a DefRtg of 107 points per 100 possessions, tied with Memphis for second-worst in the league. Again, very much a product of Karl’s offensive nature. Karl’s Denver Nuggets have had the fourth-best OffRtg (109.2) in the NBA since he started with the franchise in 2004, but also the ninth-best DefRtg over that span.
>>Damage in the District
Scorched from the Michael Jordan era, Washington, unlike Milwaukee, was Grunfeld’s chance to somewhat build anew—no one really had any connection to the players leftover from Jordan and Doug Collins’ time. But his opening act wasn’t that much different from the stage in Wisconsin, just longer. Grunfeld was able to find entertaining scorers to thrive in Jordan’s pro-style Princeton-style offense, but defense could never get the attention it deserved…
Ernie Grunfeld’s NBA teams, their Offensive and Defensive Ratings each season, and the overall NBA rank of those respective statistics during those seasons. [stats via Basketball-Reference.com]