Keeping Ernie Grunfeld: Are we asking the right questions?

USA TODAY Sports

It's not about his performance this year; it's about whether he is the right man to maximize the team's assets for the future.

Mike Wise has a column in the Washington Post arguing that Ernie Grunfeld should remain the Washington Wizards' GM past this season. As you all surely know, his contract, along with Randy Wittman's, expires this year. Good timing, too, because this is the best team he's assembled since the Gilbert Arenas years (and possibly since well before then, depending on how you view Agent Zero's teams).

Wise's argument mostly centers around this season and how the fruits of the rebuilding effort have led to a competitive team. To sum it up:

As time has gone on, the bigger picture of Grunfeld's vision is beginning to emerge. Taking on Nene's $65 million deal or the remaining $15 million of Ariza's deal appeared risky, if not foolish, in 2012. But without those pieces and Gortat surrounding John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards aren't three games over .500 for the first time since the Arenas era and less than two months from possibly their first playoff series win since 2005.

It's nice that the Wizards have a competitive team now, and it's to Grunfeld's credit that several of the veteran players he's brought in over the past couple years have helped achieve that. Frankly, they've helped more than I expected.

But is this the best way to judge who the GM of this franchise should be for the next several years is ... the next several years. Not this year.

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Wise touches on this only slightly in his column with this paragraph.

This is a very good core group, with its two best players 20 and 23 years old, respectively. The Wizards have put themselves in position salary-cap wise to spend in free agency the next two seasons.

Let's think a little more about this. Here is what the Wizards have in the future.

  1. An All-Star 23-year-old point guard that could be one of the very few best players in the league. A great building block. The kind of player that others believe will soon convince veterans to sign on a discount to come to D.C.
  2. A very promising 20-year-old shooting guard that could eventually be an All-Star, but is going through some growing pains, perhaps because the Wizards want to develop him into a more complete player. A great kid with all the intangibles, but also one who has suffered multiple leg injuries. Still, an excellent secondary asset.
  3. Cap space: Yes, the Wizards have lots of it in several years leading up to the summer of 2016, when Kevin Durant is a free agent. Other teams with similar flexibility: Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago (with one Carlos Boozer amnesty), Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit (if Greg Monroe leaves), the Lakers, Miami (literally everyone is a free agent on the Heat's roster), Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Toronto, Utah. And even the Knicks (2015) and Nets (2016) have structured their high-priced rosters so they'd have a chance to reload with cap space in a future season. Cap flexibility is important and it's nice the Wizards have it, but so do lots of other teams, so it's not as valuable in context.
  4. Draft picks: No first-rounder this year, both of their own picks in both rounds in 2015 and 2016. They don't have a treasure chest of these, but they aren't the Knicks or Nets.
  5. A very big question mark in Otto Porter. Nobody knows what he'll be at this point.
  6. Some big free-agent decisions to make.
  7. Nene with a big deal for two more years; Martell Webster with a mid-sized one for three unless his back gives out.
  8. A hodgepodge of young-ish bench players, all of whom are free agents, all of whom have the ceiling of role players.
  9. No elite young big men in the pipeline to grow with Wall and Beal, unless Kevin Seraphin really transforms. (Sorry, still shaking my fist at passing on Nerlens Noel).

Is that enough? I'll let you decide. One could say that Wall and Beal, plus cap space, is much more than many teams can put on the table. One could also say that much of the team's growth over the past two years has come because of veterans like Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor, Nene and Webster, players that will either not be around in the future or will cost all of the precious cap space to retain.

There is definitely a path to contention here, but it's not going to be easy

There is definitely a path to contention here, but it's not going to be easy. This summer in particular, the Wizards are stuck in a difficult spot unless they can woo a top free agent. The fallback options all have trade-offs. Keep Gortat and Ariza, and there goes your cap space just to retain what was a .500ish team. Keep one, but not the other, and you risk a drop-off. Lose both and fail to sign anyone legitimate to replace them, and much of the positive momentum from this year is gone.

Navigating this situation is going to be a challenge for any general manager. Determining which general manager has the best chance at doing so is even more of a challenge. Maybe it is Grunfeld. Maybe it's not.

Nevertheless, that's the way the Wizards must go about this decision. The question is not whether Ernie Grunfeld has done enough this season to save his job. It's whether he can do the best job at turning the Wizards' raw materials into a championship-caliber team in the future.

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