Wizards Veteran Roulette: Will Grunfeld’s Number Finally Come Up?
Ernie Grunfeld on… veterans.
- Mike James “…can help us immediately with his stability and scoring ability…” Dec. 10, 2008
- Earl Boykins “…is a proven veteran point guard who will provide us with leadership and stability…” Nov. 11, 2009
- Kirk Hinrich “…will provide another solid veteran presence to our backcourt and bring playoff-tested toughness, defense and leadership.” July 8, 2010
- Rashard Lewis “…brings us versatility, three-point shooting and a veteran presence.” Dec. 10, 2010
- Roger Mason, Jr. “…is a solid veteran presence who can give us quality production and shooting on the court and valuable leadership in the locker room and in the community.” Dec. 9, 2011
- Ronny Turiaf “…brings another solid veteran to our team.” Dec. 11, 2011
- Mo Evans “…gives us another solid veteran presence along with Rashard Lewis, Roger Mason and Ronny Turiaf that balances nicely with our core of young players.” Dec. 16, 2011
- Martell Webster “…provides us with another solid veteran presence and gives us flexibility with our lineups…” Aug. 29, 2012
- Jannero Pargo “…brings us veteran leadership and added depth to our backcourt…” Oct. 1, 2012
- Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor “…two more solid pieces as we continue to build our roster with a balance of proven veterans and the core of young talent that we have developed.” June 20, 2012
- Al Harrington “…will give us additional depth and experience in the frontcourt, the ability to stretch defenses and another proven veteran in the locker room.” Aug. 14, 2013
Grunfeld can’t be unique…
…He, like most NBA decision-makers, is constantly in search of revolving-door veterans who fit his “plan.” During the Wizards’ retooling, destruction and rebuild since 2009, finding the right veterans to fill peripheral roster spots, yet contribute in significant ways (beyond the court), has been difficult. See above, see the winning percentage.
This season, the Wizards seem better positioned than ever. But hasn’t that been the message for years? At least that’s the sentiment doled out by team brass in fueling bottomless expectations with a marketing touch.
Chemistry is no science when it comes to pro sports. Even presumed ‘best citizen’ veterans can unintentionally send poisonous messages in already toxic environments. On the other hand, well-traveled veterans, presumed toxic at previous stops, can be difference-makers within well-established cultures. Ron Artest (Metta World Peace) on the Lakers and Stephen Jackson on the Spurs are two recent examples. Although, M.W.P. now finds himself in New York after getting amnestied by Los Angeles, and Jackson’s second stint in San Antonio ended badly when the team waived him just prior to last year’s playoffs, timing it so Jackson would be unable to sign with another team for a postseason run.
Emeka Okafor claims that this Wizards team is the closest one he’s ever been on—as he enters his 10th NBA season with his third franchise and having experienced just a single round of playoff action with New Orleans in 2010-11. He says this team is united by the game, one that they finally think they can win, and win often.
“When I walked into the locker room, I saw the younger guys talking and joking around… I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m getting up there’ because I remember when I was having these dumb conversations, you know. But we’re all the same. It’s that bond of wanting to win and wanting to get better … we’re all in it. We’ve been there, so they listen. We’re respected, so that’s the bridge,” Okafor told me.
But the Wizards have been here before. It’s the Nth consecutive year of wanting to make the playoffs behind the mysterious veteran power/chemistry since the last time they made the playoffs, over half a decade ago.
Okafor is paid handsomely for his veteran presence, the most expensive player on the team. And that leadership proved valuable last season when he had the clout to put John Wall in his place. Nene Hilario, the second-highest paid Wizard, also qualifies as a leading veteran by default (and is one of two locker room “cops,” says Kevin Seraphin, 23 years young).
Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster and Al Harrington represent the peripheral veterans on this year’s squad. Ariza arrived in Washington unwillingly, the result of Grunfeld’s wizardry in turning two dead-in-the-water max-level contracts from the CBA of yore into a shift in defensive culture. People said Gilbert Arenas was untradable, then they said trading Rashard Lewis (and his able-to-be-bought-out contract at a discount) for Okafor and Ariza was ill-advised. Without Okafor and Ariza entering a second season in Washington with more “familiarity” (Ariza’s word several times over on media day), playoff hopes would be significantly dashed.
In less than 12 months, the Wizards went from not even being on Webster’s free agency radar to Webster getting $22 million over four years from them. Teammates consider him respectfully weird, the bond-inducing team comedian, sort of a ham, and one helluva 3-point shooter.
“If I had to pick one guy who helps you in the [defensive] spots, it’s Martell,” said rookie Glen Rice, Jr. when asked about his time training and scrimmaging with an array of new teammates in the days leading up to training camp. “He makes sure that I’m always in the right spot, even if he’s on the opposite team and we’re playing.”
Al Harrington is the new dog on the block and the other locker room “cop,” according to Seraphin. He also might represent the first on-the-radar veteran of muster to sign with this era’s Wizards for a minimum contract with hopes playing for a playoff contender. Granted, Harrington is 33 years old and coming off a knee injury that came with staph infection complications. But he said that he lost 27 pounds this summer to keep weight off his knee; that he has been playing 5-on-5 pick-up basketball for 1.5 hours per day, five days a week for the last three months; and that he feels like it’s been years since he’s been this healthy (even if it’s only been about 18 months).
“He’s pretty cool. He doesn’t like a huge ego, he doesn’t seem like he’s bigger than everybody, like he’s the vet. It’s not like a rookie hazing, do-what-I-say type of guy,” said second-year player Bradley Beal about Harrington. “He’s a real cool, down to earth guy. He definitely gives advice when needed. I’ve seen him before pull Kevin [Seraphin] to the side and give him tips during when we’re scrimmaging and afterwards in the locker room.”
“We all live in the same building—I’m not going to say the building—but they’re all over there playing video games all day together,” said Harrington about his new, “just young” teammates when I asked him about the camaraderie that he’s seen so far from this particular squad. “So these guys love each other, and I think that’s big. They’re family on and off the court, and I think that’s going to carry onto the court [in our play].” Harrington said he felt like a fish-out-of-water watching the Wiz Kids get at each other playing “Madden,” but he was still clearly making an effort. On past teams, those such as Brendan Haywood would scoff at the idea of making an extra effort with the likes of JaVale McGee. Can’t blame him, in hindsight, we think.
Ariza, Webster and Harrington all come from different veteran perspectives. Ariza is still seemingly trying to deal with coming off the bench, Harrington says he’d rather come off the bench, and Webster now apparently thinks he should come off the bench. (Webster acquired the starting role at 3 in early December of last season after Ariza went down with an injury and never let go.)
One of these veterans is looking to make an impression before his last hurrah (contract-wise); another is hoping to earn his new $22 million paycheck; and a third is putting considerations of retirement out of his head for now to continue with a sport he’s played almost all of his life. All of them want to be winners. Will they finally be a combination that makes Washington respectable? That’s the debate.
“We’re not just going to stamp our name on the playoffs because that’s not how it’s done,” says Webster. The goal of simply making the postseason is a good start when you’ve never been there before. As training camp nears its end, this is where it starts.
Video — Captures of Ariza, Webster, and Harrington from media day:
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Ernie Grunfeld on… Veterans (the full quotes)…
Mike James, Dec. 10, 2008:
“This trade strengthens and energizes our backcourt by giving us a veteran guard in Mike James who can help us immediately with his stability and scoring ability and a young guard in Javaris Crittenton who can help us now and in the future with his athleticism.”
Earl Boykins, Nov. 11, 2009:
“Earl is a proven veteran point guard who will provide us with leadership and stability off of the bench.”
Kirk Hinrich, July 8, 2010:
“Kirk will provide another solid veteran presence to our backcourt and bring playoff-tested toughness, defense and leadership.
Rashard Lewis, Dec. 10, 2010:
“This trade allows us to continue to rebuild around our core group of young players and provides financial flexibility as we move forward. We’re thrilled to have been able to accomplish those goals while also getting back a two-time All-Star in Rashard Lewis, who brings us versatility, three-point shooting and a veteran presence.”
Mike Bibby, Mo Evans, and Jordan Crawford, Feb. 23, 2011:
“We were able to acquire a proven, clutch leader in Mike, a hard-nosed veteran in Maurice, and an intriguing prospect in Jordan, as well as a first round draft choice to add to our own first round pick this summer.”
Roger Mason, Jr., Dec. 9, 2011:
“Roger is a solid veteran presence who can give us quality production and shooting on the court and valuable leadership in the locker room and in the community.”
Mo Evans, Dec. 16, 2011:
“In addition to the versatility and athleticism he brings to the lineup, he gives us another solid veteran presence along with Rashard Lewis, Roger Mason and Ronny Turiaf that balances nicely with our core of young players.”
Martell Webster, Aug. 29, 2012:
“Adding him to the roster provides us with another solid veteran presence and gives us flexibility with our lineups at both the shooting guard and small forward positions.”
Jannero Pargo, Oct. 1, 2012:
“Jannero brings us veteran leadership and added depth to our backcourt. He is a hard-nosed competitor and proven outside shooter that will fit well with the mix of veterans and young players on our roster.”
Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor, June 20, 2012:
“We are pleased to add two more solid pieces as we continue to build our roster with a balance of proven veterans and the core of young talent that we have developed.”
Al Harrington, Aug. 14, 2013:
“Al’s all-around game and reputation as a leader make him a solid fit with our team. He will give us additional depth and experience in the frontcourt, the ability to stretch defenses and another proven veteran in the locker room.”