Ranking Ernie Grunfeld’s Free Agent Signings in Washington
This summer’s free agency extravaganza has been uncharted territory for one Ernest “Ernie” Grunfeld. He’s never really been into signing free agents away from other teams, mostly because—for years—Washington just hasn’t been an attractive destination. It’s tough to be the guy always paying what amounts to a tax just to get guys to show up to the party.
Now, it can one hundred percent be said that not much has been done to cultivate D.C. as a free agent “destination” during Grunfeld’s reign in Washington, which began in the summer of 2003 ([note]…And, for many years prior; Grunfeld was given a tough hand—one he signed up to be dealt—when agreeing to run Abe Pollin’s long-malfunctioning team.[/note]). Signing Paul Pierce in 2014 was the signal of some sort of change (even if Sam Cassell was more influential in that decision, and even if Pierce left after one season), but we also don’t know what sort of damage a disastrous 2015-16 did to that foundation ([note]If you consider Al Horford’s decision to join the tradition in Boston instead, then not building on two playoffs appearances in a row tipped the scales out of the Wizards’ favor.[/note]).
What we know, now, is that the Wizards were not good enough for Kevin Durant to even feign interest (only a record-setting team that beat in the playoffs him was), and that they were spurned by other top targets, Al Horford and Nic Batum (or even Ryan Anderson if you believe some reports). But the Wizards did have a boatload of money and a player (Wall) who I consider to be the NBA’s best pass-first point guard outside of Chris Paul. That has got to count for something, right? The answer is still cloudy after Washington’s successive moves to add Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson, Trey Burke, and Tomas Satoransky over the holiday weekend (and then Jason Smith on Tuesday). These brand new players don’t factor into the rankings below, by the way.
Otherwise, Grunfeld’s general M.O. has been to trade for players instead of wading into the free agent game, which invokes names like Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat, Nene, Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor, Kirk Hinrich, Mike Miller, Randy Foye, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, and so on. So, let’s rank Grunfeld’s free agent signings (away from other teams) during his tenure with the Wizards.
Not included are couch surfers (guys with no team, signed mid-season), such as Earl Boykins (Nov. 2009), Shaun Livingston (Feb. 2010), Garrett Temple (Dec. 2012), Drew Gooden (Feb. 2014), Will Bynum (March 2015), Ryan Hollins (Nov. 2015), J.J. Hickson (Feb. 2016), Marcus Thornton (March 2016), are you really going to make me mention Jannero Pargo (Oct. 2012), and for the hell of it bringing Chris Whitney back (from Orlando in 2003) for the last 16 games of his career.
Re-signed free agents aren’t included, either, such as when Grunfeld matched the six-year, $38 million offer sheet that Etan Thomas signed with the Bucks in 2004. ([note]Market conditions, I tell ya! Etan Thomas was one a few available bigs in a big-starved market that summer.[/note]) Nor are these gems ranked: Caron Butler’s five-year, $50 million extension in 2005; Antawn Jamison’s four-year, $50 million extension in 2008; Gilbert Arenas’ six-year, $111 million contract in 2008 (although Arenas does get mentioned); and the recent max extensions of John Wall and Bradley Beal.
And, finally, we most certainly won’t be mentioning the times Grunfeld declined to match an offer sheet—Steve Blake to the Blazers in 2005, Jared Jeffries to the Knicks in 2006, or in the case of Larry Hughes going to the Cavaliers in 2005, just letting the player walk.
On to ranking Grunfeld’s free agent signings (at least 19 of them), starting with the absolute worst (and there are, seemingly, a lot of bad ones)…
#19) Eric Maynor was signed away from Portland with a two-year, $4.1 contract in July 2013, after the Thunder dumped him via trade in February 2013. Once considered promising to some degree, Maynor was a dumpster fire of cat hair in Washington. He lasted 23 games before being benched and then traded (with Jan Vesely to get Andre Miller!) around seven months after being signed. Mitigating self-created disasters, the Grunfeld way!
#18) Samaki Walker, three seasons removed from winning a title with the Lakers in 2002, signed with the Wizards in August 2004 at the age of 28 and after one season in Miami. Walker inked a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum and played a total of 134 minutes (14 games) before being released in March. This gets him ranked above Eric Maynor, at least.
#17) Awvee Storey, a 6-foot-6 wing from Chicago, was signed in October 2005 and played 25 games for the Wizards, starting one game, and that was about it. In May 2006, he and Gilbert Arenas were arrested in South Beach, Miami for jaywalking, or disobeying police, or something trivial—the memories. Storey has since been an upstanding member of the Monumental Sports & Entertainment organization for several years, serving in a player development and video coordinator capacity for the Washington Mystics. He is also active in the D.C. community via sports programs and basketball camps.
#16) Anthony Peeler ended a 13-year NBA career in Washington at age 35, signed away from Sacramento in July 2004 for $1.6 million. Peeler played 40 games, shot a career low 37.3 percent from the field, and missed virtually all of March 2005. He shot 1-for-9 over seven playoff games (when the Wizards beat the Bulls, 4-2, but were then swept by the Heat, 4-0).
#15) Gary Neal: The Wizards signed him in the conservative, preparation-filled 2015 summer for peanuts. He was pretty hurt early on, pretty bad in general, and perhaps ultimately pretty disenchanted with team management/coaching. The lingeringly hurt Neal was waived by early March. Still better than Eric Maynor.
#14) Fabricio Oberto, after entering the league at age 30 and spending his first four seasons in San Antonio (winning a title in 2007), probably had zero clue what he was getting himself into. At age 34, the Wizards signed him to a one-year, $2 million contract to join the not quite shiny, but new Mike Miller and Randy Foye acquisition in 2009. Oberto wasn’t anything near what he was with the Spurs, as his new house crumbled around him. He ended up witness to the Arenas-Crittenton locker room guns incident and had to testify in court because of it. Oberto was, and very likely still is, a nice man from Argentina.
#13) Alan Anderson, poor Alan Anderson. After some breakout seasons with the Nets and a nice showing in the 2015 playoffs, the Wizards signed Anderson to a cheap, one-year, $4 million deal last July. The problem is that surgery to repair his injured ankle in May 2015 just didn’t take. The 33-year-old missed training camp, had another procedure in October, continued to have issues, and missed every game until late-February. He seemed to be a good locker room leader and quite expressive bench cheerleader, but only appeared in 13 games and did not look to be the 3&D stopgap the Wizards hoped he would be. And yet, Anderson still ranks better than six guys on this list.
#12) Al Harrington was added for veteran locker room grittiness in August 2013. He made 34 3-pointers in 34 appearances and subsequently helped coach the 2014 summer league team in Las Vegas. He was the elder Uncle Albert and he ranks here. (One could—‘could’—argue that Harrington was one of the more prominent veteran hasbeens to sign with the team, full of hope.)
#11) Calvin Booth, the leading shotblocker in Penn State University history, was originally drafted in 1999 by Michael Jordan with the 35th pick and was later traded to Dallas as part of the infamous unloading of Juwan Howard’s contract. Grunfeld brought Booth back in 2005 as a rarely used, shot-blocking big man at the end of the bench—a modern day Charles Jones, if you will.
#10) A.J. Price was no longer in Indiana’s plans after three seasons, so the Wizards signed the 26-year-old to be John Wall’s backup for a minimum, one-year contract in July 2012. And Price wasn’t that bad, all things considered. He was forced to play the most minutes in his career by far (1,278 minutes and 22 starts ([note]A.J. Price’s second-most is 865 minutes in his rookie, 2009-10 season[/note])), because Wall missed the start of the season—and the majority of the year—due to injury. Price did put up his second-highest PER after his rookie season (12.4 to 14.0), but he wasn’t really that great, either (and he also dealt with injury that season, limiting him to 57 games). The Wizards let Price go after that lone year sort of at the helm.
#9) Rasual Butler: Grunfeld signed the 688-year veteran leading up to the 2014-15 season. Oh, wait, that’s the number of NBA games Butler played before an impressive 75-game stint with the Wizards. Well, at least his pre-All-Star break run was impressive—43 percent on 3-pointers, helping to cover for beginning-of-season injuries to Martell Webster and Bradley Beal. Butler shot a scorching 55.2 percent from 3 in November, burning the eyebrows off the league. That cooled to a still-solid 47.6 percent in December but then life, and the 35-year-old Butler’s body, came at him fast. His shooting percentage faded over coming months (28.4% post-All-Star break). He was a veteran flier who paid off overall—go figure; so we shall rank Butler ninth.
#8) Michael Ruffin is a player whom many would rank lower simply because of the “Toronto Incident,” but for three seasons and three playoff runs he was a more-than-solid defender who could not hit the side of a barn, building, or the Great Wall of China with his jump shot. He made about $4.2 million dollars over three years with the franchise after being signed away from the Jazz in August 2004. Fun Fact: Coach Eddie Jordan once, or several times, inserted Ruffin into the starting lineup as a defensive maneuver which was also intended to send a message to incumbent center Brendan Haywood.
#7) Roger Mason, Jr., DMV-bred, was initially signed by the Wizards in September 2006 after a few stints with the Bulls but mostly after toiling away overseas. He worked hard and made the best of the opportunity available (injured teammates) to burst onto the scene in 2006-07, and he even turned down a contract with the Spurs that ‘07 summer because he thought another season with the hometown Wizards would bring more opportunity (i.e., playing time). And it did. Mason would eventually sign with the Spurs for a couple seasons after that; he didn’t win a ring, however, and had a pretty disastrous 2009-10. But Mason was an intelligent veteran and, between bouncing around the league for the remainder of his career, was brought back by the Wizards prior to the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. By some accounts, during this second stint, however, his veteranship didn’t exactly help a locker room (in John Wall’s second year) that quickly crumbled into the depths.
#6) Antonio Daniels put up two career highs in PER (19.7 and 18.0) while playing for Seattle in his seventh and eighth NBA seasons (age 28-29). He was, of course, then signed by the Wizards in August 2005 at age 30 for five years and $30 million. Daniels fell off a cliff with a 13.7 PER his first season in Washington but was overall serviceable during his tenure—he did a lot of things, just OK. Daniels was traded to New Orleans in late-2008 after 244 games with Washington (average PER of 13.9). Past that one metric, Daniels had a net-positive impact on the franchise but wasn’t that great of a signing. And yet, has there been a better backup point guard in D.C. since Daniels’ last season with the Wizards? Ramon Sessions comes close, if he doesn’t answer the question affirmatively.
#5) Martell Webster signed a cheap, one-year, $1.6 million deal when no one else really wanted him in August 2012. Over 76 subsequent games he proceeded to be the team’s best 3-point shooter (42.2% for 2012-13), filling an area of need long ignored by management (particularly at the start of John Wall’s career). The Wizards then rewarded their fun-loving shooter and good locker room guy with a four-year, $22 million contract the next summer. That didn’t work out so well (and also doesn’t factor in these rankings per the outlined criteria), as Webster’s career was soon put on ice due due to an array of painful-sounding injuries. He’s a rapper now.
#4) Darius Songaila was signed away from the Chicago Bulls with a five-year, $23 million deal in July 2006 after this third year in the league at age 28. Toward the end of his tenure, before being sent to Minnesota in the Randy Foye-Mike Miller deal, Songaila’s contract was considered somewhat of an albatross ([note]In addition to supposedly getting talent in Foye and Miller, part of the allure in giving up the first round pick in 2009 (Ricky Rubio, 5th overall) was also getting rid of the contracts of Songaila, Etan Thomas, and Oleksiy Pecherov.[/note]) Still, Songaila was one of my favorite Wizards of the Arenas-Butler-Jamison era. His numbers didn’t dazzle, he wasn’t the best rebounder for his size, he wasn’t a very mobile big, and he was a “long 2” stretch-4 ([note]32% of Songaila’s shots with the Wizards came in the 16-feet to the 3-point line range.[/note]) … but “D-Song” was a reliable, hard-nosed, locker room guy—cliche city. He also gave Wizards fans one of the greatest highlights of the past 10 years when he (inadvertently) slapped LeBron James in the face during Game 5 of the 2008 playoffs, earning him a one-game suspension.
#3) DeShawn Stevenson was not getting the monetary love from Orlando in the 2006 summer (he opted out of one-year and $3 million to also turn down three-years and $10 million from the Magic). So he signed a very cheap contract with the Wizards that paid him less than $1 million in year one with a player opt-out before year two. Stevenson opted out (after a good season) tested the market, but eventually settled for Washington’s affordable offer of four years and $15 million. This was a rare win for Grunfeld. Say what you will about Stevenson’s rabble-rousing, but the two best seasons of his 13-year NBA career were with the Wizards. He was in rare form between 2006 and 2008—a heckuva run—shooting 40.4 percent and 38.3 percent from 3, respectively, before back, knee, and various other ailments derailed his 2008-09 season. The post-movie update montage features still images of Stevenson celebrating an NBA championship with the Dallas Mavericks.
#2) Paul Pierce was recruited by old pal Sam Cassell to join the Wiz Kids in July 2014. His signing of a two-year, $11 million contract seemingly came out of nowhere was, finally, a sole signal of the Wizards being able to attract a big name free agent, even if Pierce was about to turn 37 years old. In just one season before opting out of his contract to join the Clippers (and Cassell), Pierce made a significant impact in the Wizards locker room and on team culture, as well as on the court. He was trolled by an entire fanbase in Toronto and answered the jeers by helping lead the Wizards to a first round series sweep of the Raptors. His 73 regular season appearances and 10 playoff games with Washington, fully of savvy and swishes, will always be fondly remembered.
#1) Gilbert Arenas. Gilbert F-ing Arenas. Blame Grunfeld all you want for the overall ineptitude during his never-ending tenure, but Arenas was more responsible than anyone for bringing the franchise down. From being temperamental and selfish when he was good (and healthy) to becoming a headcase over injury and over-rehabbing his multiple knee injuries to playing his part to derail the whole 2009-10 season before the locker room guns incident that involved lying, cover-ups, criminal charges, indefinite suspensions, and time at a halfway house, even happened.
But, man, Gilbert was great when he was good. And he was innovative, on and off the court. Too bad that the joke’s long been on him and he’s still laughing. So, ironically, Arenas signed both the best, and worst, contracts in franchise history—at least hyperbole would dictate the latter.
The best: With a loophole, Grunfeld stole the 2001 second round pick (31st overall) from Golden State with a six-year, $64 million contract. The Warriors were powerless to match because of cap rules and this was subsequently addressed in the 2005 CBA (now known as the “Gilbert Arenas Provision”). The rest is dramatic fucking history, and part of that was Arenas playing like an absolute star for a couple really fun seasons.
The worst: Arenas, coming off continued injury, was given a six-year, $111 million extension in July 2008 (which again, re-signings don’t factor in these rankings). What else were the Wizards to do? Let their star walk away for nothing? Because Arenas was threatening some crazy shit unless he got paid. So Grunfeld, without much choice (via Abe Pollin), relented, and it was a disaster. At least Arenas’ “untradeable” contract became tradeable for Rashard Lewis, who via trade became Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor, who, via trade with a first round pick, became Marcin Gortat.
The circle of life; the circle of Grunfeld and free agents—all laid out.