Ernie Grunfeld: Offensive for Over a Decade, How’d He Get So Defensive? (Pt. 2)
[This is Part Two 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 One can be read here.]
>>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.
Through the first five seasons of the Jordan-Grunfeld pairing, Washington finished with a 106.9 Offensive Rating (OffRtg), ranked eighth in the NBA. Their 108.0 Defensive Rating (DefRtg) from 2003 to 2008, however, ranked sixth worst. The Wizards made the playoffs in four of Grunfeld’s first five seasons, making quick work to get the into the postseason in year two after a 25-win debut. The duo ultimately fielded a combined postseason record of 8-18.
Prior to season two, Grunfeld traded the 2004 fifth overall pick (Devin Harris) and two busted veterans, Stackhouse and Laettner, to Dallas for Antawn Jamison. Jamison was 28, coming off winning the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year Award in his sixth season, and was going into year three of a six-year, $80 million contract. No one could much argue trading the high draft pick in this instance. The Wizards were getting a more talented player who was a perfect fit in Jordan’s system. The fate of the franchise was seemingly changed for good with a 2005 playoff appearance and an Arenas shot to beat the Chicago Bulls at the buzzer in Game 5 before the Wizards won the series in six. They were swept 4-0 by Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and the rest of the Miami Heat in the second round, but still boasted the NBA’s highest-scoring trio with Arenas, Jamison and Larry Hughes.Prior to the 2005-06 season, Grunfeld added Caron Butler in a trade, Antonio Daniels via free agency, and Andray Blatche from the draft. His most important non-move: letting Hughes walk via free agency to Cleveland with a five-year, $70 million contract. Hughes was initially insulted by Grunfeld’s more rational offer of six-years and $54 million, reported the Washington Post. The offer was eventually upped to six-years and $72 million in an effort to keep Hughes, but it was too late. It was probably the smartest thing Grunfeld never did. Instead, he pivoted and got Butler. And Hughes’ game declined terribly in Cleveland; he was traded three times and then waived before the end of that contract.
The Wizards finished Grunfeld’s third season two games over .500 and fell 4-2 to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (and Hughes) in the first round of the 2006 playoffs; the Cavs took Games 5 and 6 in hard-fought, controversial overtimes. Heading into his fourth season, Grunfeld added Oleksiy Pecherov (18th pick in the draft), DeShawn Stevenson and Roger Mason to the core. The team finished an even .500 on the court, but both Butler and Arenas experienced significant injuries over the final weeks of the season. Without two All-Stars, the Wizards were swept 4-0 by the Cavaliers in the first round of the 2007 playoffs.
Grunfeld could never assemble enough complementary parts around Arenas, Jamison and Butler to get over the LeBron hump, nor could they stay healthy. That core “Big 3” really only experienced a single playoffs together. Injuries robbed them of all other chances. For good measure, the Wizards were beaten one last time by the Cavaliers in the 2008 first round, 4-2, with Arenas either injured or relatively absent (in mind and in spirit) for most of the season. The Wizards haven’t sniffed the 30-win mark in the five seasons since. The lowest-lows during that time have been well-documented, so a rehashing isn’t completely necessary.
It was always posthumously lauded how the Wizards got off to such a great start in that 2006-07 season. Washington was 10 games over .500, 27-17, into late January, and Jordan coached the East All-Stars. But that half-season of accolades only worked to cloud the reality. The old writing on the wall couldn’t be read: NBA team builders simply could not afford to blindly throw their efforts into offense when defense was still championship king. It wasn’t always outspoken, but Coach Eddie Jordan did have his frustrations with certain primary players being less than willing and capable defenders–Brendan Haywood was a terribly robotic pick-and-roll defender, Jamison rarely paid defensive accountability so much as a courtesy, and Arenas often dedicated his defending to gambling and ball-watching.
Grunfeld’s best free agent signings over the Eddie Jordan years were Antonio Daniels, Darius Songaila and Deshawn Stevenson. Also worth noting that prior to the 2004-05 season, Grunfeld was forced to match a six-year, $36 million offer sheet that Etan Thomas signed with Milwaukee. Thomas, then coming off a strong third NBA season, was a highly sought-after big man in an otherwise thin free agent market at the position. The move was later highly scrutinized as Thomas’ play declined and as a rift developed between Thomas and Haywood, who were involved in multiple fights over the subsequent years. Grunfeld, normally more calculated in free agency than his NBA counterparts, got burnt again, even if rational hindsight continues to indicate that keeping Thomas was a necessity.
In tune with Grunfeld’s M.O., he was able to nab Butler from the Lakers in 2005 in exchange for Kwame Brown instead of playing the open market (Brown was a free agent, signed and traded to the Lakers in the deal). He left the gambling for the draft, opting for risky youth oozing with natural talent but little basketball wherewithal–perhaps Blatche, McGee and Young leave the most flagrant track marks on Grunfeld’s arm. As history has shown, that once-budding group had little in terms of locker room leadership from which they could learn, if they were even capable of absorbing knowledge in the first place.
“The most important player or person in any organization is the person that picks the players. But we don’t, as organizations, examine them.”
—Jeff Van Gundy, in general
The firing of Eddie Jordan and ultimate transition to Flip Saunders was another major, underrated mistake by Grunfeld. Not to say continuing with Jordan was the answer, but the offense fell off and the defense didn’t get much better under Saunders. And the oversimplified fact was that Saunders, even as an experienced coach inheriting a presumably veteran team, was not the right personality for the cast of characters in Ernie’s cupboard.
“I’m just surprised that when everybody acknowledges it’s a player’s league—everybody would agree with that—then the most important player or person in any organization is the person that picks the players. But we don’t, as organizations, examine them,” said former Grunfeld colleague Jeff Van Gundy in a recent radio interview pertaining to the Detroit Pistons firing head coach Lawrence Frank. “We just take the easy way out time and time again. You lose, the G.M. convinces the owner, ‘We got good players. It’s the coach’s fault.’ We fire the coach; we bring a new coach in; we continue to lose. We fire that coach, saying that ‘We have better players.’ It just goes on and on.”
Unlike in Milwaukee, Grunfeld overcooked his commitment to the “Big 3” in Washington (certainly at the behest of Pollin). Even in New York he was able to test the waters of foresight by trading Oakley and Starks at the right time. Perhaps a different ownership environment in D.C. would have taken a longer view. But an aging Pollin was finally interested in loosening his purse strings for one last championship chase. Arenas and Jamison were sons of Abe, so Grunfeld was forced to double-down on his marriage to offense, throwing boatloads of contract extension cash to both in the summer of 2008 (Arenas for six-years, $111 million and Jamison for four-years, $50 million). Similar to in Milwaukee, Grunfeld surrendered a draft pick to get veterans (and to dump the misspent contracts of Songaila and Pecherov). Although, it was much more valuable draft pick—the fifth overall in the draft (so long, Ricky Rubio; so long, Stephen Curry). Mike Miller and Randy Foye weren’t disruptive personalities like Anthony Mason, but the fact that they were one-and-done talents was disruptive enough to the franchise.
The idea was for Flip’s offensive mind to weld veteran parts into a well-oiled machine. The reality is that wasn’t who Flip Saunders was. Experienced, yes. Capable, yes. But given a handful of jokers with the rules changing on the fly, Flip was showing up at the card table shirtless already.
The elephant in the room is that maybe Arenas was right. Turns out, Javaris Crittenton was the real bully, with real bullets, and is now indicted on a real murder charge in an obviously separate incident. The 2009 gun incident in the Wizards’ locker room between Arenas and Crittenton was the mystery card up Grunfeld’s sleeve that even he didn’t know he had. Whether the incident could have ultimately been swept under the rug will never be answered. But if there was ever an accelerant to the reset button, it was Grunfeld going public (starting with David Stern) regarding the disruptive, jumper-less, and drained-of-explosiveness Arenas. Simply put: Grunfeld hitched his wagon to Arenas, got fed up with his antics, and drew the line (which was made much easier after Pollin had passed away a month prior in November 2009). If you can’t blame Grunfeld, blame everyone.
But under new ownership, Grunfeld has done all that’s been asked of him. If you had a new boss, you’d want him to evaluate you just the same.The Wizards were “bad by design” once blogged Ted Leonsis, who took majority ownership of the Wizards in early summer 2010. Luck landed Leonsis’ design John Wall, a top 25 NBA player, and Bradley Beal, the third best rookie, according to ESPN.com’s David Thorpe. Take those two and start a brand new team right there from scratch. You’re good.
But it doesn’t work that way.
Grunfeld cleared bad contracts leftover from his days under Pollin with reckless abandon, barely concerned with getting assets back–he actually added cash to Mark Cuban’s pockets to take Butler, Stevenson and Brendan Haywood off his hands. It’s amazing to think that more contributions to today’s player rotation were a result of trading Gilbert Arenas (Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, via Rashard Lewis) than from the combined, current returns of trading Jamison, Butler, Haywood and Stevenson (essentially, Trevor Booker). A forced hand made step two of Grunfeld’s demolition getting rid of his glaring mistakes: JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Andray Blatche.
Somehow, in the process of it all, Grunfeld and the Wizards got defensive.
Add some defensive-minded veterans.
Draft athletic, defensive-bodied players with more college or overseas experience–Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely, and Chris Singleton.
Get rid of bad investments in youth without a defensive willingness–McGee, Young, Blatche, and Jordan Crawford (the cumulative returns: two banged-up Brazilians, Nene and Leandro Barbosa … and 54 minutes of Jason Collins).
Is it a surprise the Wizards were quickly able to turn-around one of the worst defenses in the league with such simplicity? Not totally.
This season the Wizards fielded the fifth best DefRtg in the NBA, 103.0, the only season in Grunfeld’s last 14 running a team that his defense has been ranked better than 18th. The average DefRtg rank over his previous 13 seasons: 23rd. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the new Grunfeld assembly has allowed just 0.86 Points Per Possession this season, also ranked fifth in the league.“There’s no set pattern, it just depends on what kind of material you have and what type of players you have on the team,” said Grunfeld during his season-ending session with the media this week, “but I think it’s been shown that the teams that have success, longer-term success and have success in the playoffs, are good defensive teams. They have to have scoring also, but really the foundation starts with the defense. We were a top 10 defensive team this year, statistically, and that’s something that we want to maintain and we want to build on.”
Oh, there’s been a pattern alright.
But while Grunfeld watches games from his perch above the court, Randy Wittman is down in the trenches, as were Flip Saunders, Ed Tapscott, Eddie Jordan, George Karl, Jeff Van Gundy, Don Nelson, and Pat Riley, all past coaches under Grunfeld. Is Wittman the one responsible for Washington’s improved defense? Certainly he had a large hand. As opposed to the circumstance of his colleague, Saunders, Wittman has thus far brought a no-nonsense approach to the Wizards. He benched McGee and Young and embarrassed Blatche with a ‘DNP-Conditioning’ label over a large portion of last season. Wittman coaches Kevin Seraphin hard (and the player likes it), and he’s not afraid to send messages to John Wall when he’s pouting, nor keep Trevor Ariza on the bench when he claims he’s the “sixth starter.”
“That’s the good thing about our coaching staff, they don’t have anyone entitled or just feeling that they’re going to get a free pass.”
—Ted Leonsis on the current version of his Washington Wizards
Wittman’s demeanor has been key to the franchise, run by Grunfeld, reestablishing leverage in Leonsis’ rebuilding environment. Expectations and tainted veteran influence have been exponentially lower for the coach.
“That’s the good thing about our coaching staff, they don’t have anyone entitled or just feeling that they’re going to get a free pass. They all have to play really really hard they have to practice hard,” said Leonsis during the television broadcast of Washington’s final game of the 2012-13 season in Chicago. “Randy really looks at how they’re going to contribute defensively, besides what they’re going to contribute in points and assists.”
Begs the question: Why did the Wizards wait so long to rid themselves of the so-called entitled players? Or was that by design as well? No one in the organization will ever take responsibility for the so-called knuckleheads, rather they’ve simply moved on as if the problems were created out of thin air. Lesson learned? Good question.
“We want to make sure whoever we bring on board fits into what we’re trying to develop,” said Grunfeld on Tuesday. “We tried to change the culture, and we tried to bring a culture of hard work, of professionalism, and we wanted to get players who cared about winning and losing.”
It’s difficult to read through the generic lines if Grunfeld is now more cautious in his evaluation of additions which might affect team chemistry. It’s safe to assume that Leonsis is more analytically involved in the process—or at least more measured—than Pollin was.
“You gotta have the right personnel, no question.
I don’t care who you are.”
—Randy Wittman on defense
“Coach Witt,” answered John Wall point-blank when asked during his exit interview to what (or whom) he attributed Washington’s defensive improvements. “Coach Witt just installed it into us in practice a lot. That’s what we really focused on is doing the defensive concepts and just learning how to help side and those type of things, and just us willing to buy into it.”
When asked recently, Wittman wouldn’t really get into the specifics of why the defense under him has changed so much. He certainly credits new assistant coaches Don Newman and Jerry Sichting “a lot,” admitting that defense is “kind of their background” coming from top-notch programs in San Antonio and Boston* respectively—Grunfeld and Leonsis can share bite-sized credit for sponsoring those additions.
Otherwise, “We were just able from the start really implement a system defensively, and it started from Day 1. We weren’t able to do that, obviously taking over in the middle of the year [after Flip Saunders was fired],” said Wittman. “We pretty much laid down the foundation, this is how we’re going to play from a defensive standpoint and these guys have stuck with it.”
When asked what particular aspect has sparked such a change, Wittman had one answer: “Pick and roll. It’s just a big part of our game, and you have to be solid in that part of it night in and night out. And I think that’s where we really got solid and consistent in doing it basically one way … over and over in repetition, guys on the same page.”
Hard to filter through broad concepts such as “consistency,” but it’s clear Wittman is also referring to Grunfeld’s department: personnel. Wittman is, after all, the very same coach who claimed that rookie Jan Vesely was his best big man pick-and-roll defender just over a year ago. That’s not an over-inflation of Jan’s talents, but rather an indictment of the past on-court brains facilitated by Washington’s brain trust.
“You gotta have the right personnel, no question. I don’t care who you are,” says Wittman. “So that’s another step, and we’ll continue to do that, looking like this is how we want to play both from an offensive standpoint and now defensively, and try to continue to get players that fit that style. And I think that’s going to be important as we move forward and try to add to this group. Not just add a body but add a part that’s going to be conducive to playing the way we want to play.
Hint: Grunfeld’s work isn’t done. There are several on Wittman’s squad who clearly haven’t proven their defensive salt. And the coach doesn’t merely want bodies, he wants defenders. So what now? The can has been kicked back to the front office.This is relatively new territory for Grunfeld. He’s got two up-and-coming star guards he needs to keep happy. Cap flexibility for Washington is not totally handcuffed—only one more year of high salaries paid to Ariza and Okafor (plus, Nene’s making $13 million per year through 2015-16, but that’s not completely restrictive, either). The instructions from Grunfeld’s head honcho are still to get tougher, build a championship-caliber defense.
Can his track record be trusted? Is Grunfeld innovative enough? And when people talk about changing the culture of a franchise, why haven’t the Wizards started at the top of basketball operations? One measure of a first-rate franchise is the ability to endure injuries without being historically terrible, but the Wizards have shown little resiliency over recent times in that regard. Is it fair to measure management accordingly? Yes.
A recent Washington Post article titled, “For lottery-bound Wizards, the future starts now,” rubbed a bit of lost promise in the face of Washington pro basketball fans. Grunfeld has seemingly had so many futures that he doesn’t know which crystal ball to look into. The only real known is that he has one more season under contract to keep kicking the tires. But for Grunfeld and the Wizards, the future isn’t now. ‘Now’ is merely bargain-bin rhetoric. The future is ‘How,’ and from New York to Milwaukee to Washington, Grunfeld has been out to sea—Gone Fishin’—for so long, that a return to shore with the ultimate catch still seems like a fish story.Selected Sources:
[Stats/Research via Basketball-Reference.com]
- “BASKETBALL; Grunfeld Is a Candidate for Bucks’ Post,” New York Times, Clifton Brown, May 1992
- “PRO BASKETBALL; After a Fall, Grunfeld Rebounds in Milwaukee,” New York Times, Chris Broussard, August 1999
- “Grunfeld Returns to Milwaukee,” AP, August 1999
- “PRO BASKETBALL; With Mixed Emotions, Grunfeld Returns,” New York Times, Mike Wise, November 1999
- “Pre-draft deals have players on the move,” AP, July 2000
- “ON PRO BASKETBALL; After Being Fired in New York, a Playoff Reunion,” New York Times, Mike Wise, May 2001
- “Will Bucks risk investing in Anthony Mason?,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Michael Hunt, September 2001
- “Mason trying for best scenario,” AP, Chris Sheridan, September 2001
- “Bucks close to signing Mason after making three-team trade,” AP, Chris Sheridan, October 2001
- “Three-team trade clears way for Bucks to sign Mason,” AP, October 2001
- “Jury still out on Mason as plus/minus for Bucks,” Baltimore Sun, Don Markus, November 2001
- “PRO BASKETBALL; Timing Surprises Grunfeld,” New York Times, Abe Winter, December 2001
- “Blazers looking at Grunfeld,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Don Walker, May 2003
- “Sonics’ Payton traded for Bucks’ Allen at deadline,” AP, February 2003
- “Grunfeld named Wizards’ president,” AP, June 2003
- “Milwaukee Releases Grunfeld — Wizards Job May Follow; Bucks Owner Won’t Sell,” Washington Post, Steve Wyche, June 2003
- “Bucks owner ends talks about selling team to Jordan,” AP, June 2003
- “Grunfeld free to pursue other jobs (Wizards?),” ESPN News Services, June 2003
- “Grunfeld named Wizards’ president,” AP, June 2003
- “‘Detailed discussions’ with Jordan prove fruitless,” ESPN News Services, June 2003
- “PRO BASKETBALL; Wizards Fill Top Job By Hiring Grunfeld,” New York Times, Steve Popper, July 2003
- “Grunfeld sits at head of Wizards’ table,” Baltimore Sun, Milton Kent, July 2003
- “Bucks buying out Mason’s contract,” Racine Journal-Times, Gary Woelfel, October 2003
- “Hughes Will Sign With the Cavaliers,” Washington Post, Michael Lee, July 2005
- “Against Miami Heat, the Milwaukee Bucks will be long shots to end first-round frustration,” Palm Beach Post, Ethan J. Skolnick, April 2013
*Note: Sichting was not a coach with Boston, but rather a player on the 1986 Celtics championship team.
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