Like many Wizards fans, I was riveted by the unexpected run through the playoffs this year. I even found myself fantasizing about the endless possibilities our young core could provide us with. That’s when it hit me: our core is actually not that young, contrary to belief. We have two young players and a myriad of 30-somethings being the only contributors around them. A really good friend, who, for contextual purposes, has the Skins going 11-5 every year, told me that we almost swept the Bulls and almost beat Indy, so I should imagine how good we’ll be with Wall and Beal one year older.
There, in my opinion, lies the problem. Beating a Chicago team void of talent (except for Joakim Noah) and taking an Indy team that slept through ¾ of the playoffs to six games should not be regarded as unmitigated success (heck, Atlanta took them to 7). Not when those leading our "young team" are not grooming other young players that would hint to a better future. We have two outstanding young players who, with the right supporting cast and the right coaching staff, could one-day spell "CHAMPIONSHIP" for our town. The question then is, who will select those players and who will coach them up?
Front Office /Player Selection
I will start by giving Ernie Grunfeld an immense amount of credit as one of the best contract escape artist to ever hold the position of GM in this town (or anywhere else, I haven’t checked). In no particular order, here is a quick rundown of a few contracts he was able to extricate the Wizards from:
1- Gilbert Arenas: 6 Years/$111 Million
2- Rashard Lewis: 6 Years/$118 Million
3- Andray Blatche: 5 Years/ $35 Million
4- Emeka Okafor: 6 Years/$72 Million
5- Etan Thomas: 6 Years/$37 Million
As you can tell, Ernie is a wizard, pun intended, when it comes to purging bad contracts. To be fair, the Lewis and Okafor contracts were acquired in trades for structural reasons. He even manages to often get decent pieces in return for his bad contracts, such as Ariza (and Okafor) in the Lewis trade and Gortat as part of the Okafor trade. I sincerely hope there’s a young executive working under him that has soaked in all of the alligator-wrestling techniques the old master has been using -- I’ll elaborate on this further on.
However, it must be said that all of the contracts he ended purging the team of were a result of his work; whether through the giving out the bad contract -- i.e. Arenas, Thomas, Blatche, or the taking on a bad contract in a trade to offset an already disastrous contract -- i.e. Lewis for Arenas, Okafor and Ariza for Lewis. Therefore, how much credit can one truly get for putting out a fire he/she started? Although you’ve put out the fire, the house has still sustained some damage and is not as sturdy after the fire as it was before. The house would have been even better had the energy and money used to put out the fire been used on adding a nice pool or a deck. Thus is the case with our Wizards. Ernie has been burning down our home and getting credit for extinguishing the fire numerous times. His contracts track record would have him in the realm of mediocre or average at best.
However, free agency and trades are only one aspect of a general manager’s job. Arguably, the most important aspect of a GM’s job in the salary cap era is the proper use of the draft to supply his team with young, cheap talent. This is where his grade goes from mediocre to, how can I put it mildly, Disastrous. Take a look below at the Wizards’ drafts in the Ernie era (from Wikipedia.com). Looking at this has given me no shortage of nightmares. Granted, it shows an incomplete picture, yet it clearly describes the GM’s performance:
|2013||1||3||Otto Porter||Georgetown University|
|2012||1||3||Bradley Beal||University of Florida|
|2012||2||32||Tomáš Satoranský||Banca Cívica (Spain)|
|2011||1||18||Chris Singleton||Florida State University|
|2011||2||34||Shelvin Mack||Butler University|
|2010||1||1||John Wall||University of Kentucky|
|2010||1||30||Lazar Hayward||Marquette University|
|2009||2||32||Jermaine Taylor||University of Central Florida|
|2008||1||18||JaVale McGee||University of Nevada, Reno|
|2008||2||47||Bill Walker||Kansas State University|
|2007||1||16||Nick Young||University of Southern California|
|2007||2||47||Dominic McGuire||California State University, Fresno|
|2004||1||5||Devin Harris||University of Wisconsin–Madison|
|2004||2||32||Peter John Ramos|
This does not show blunders like trading away the number 5 overall pick in 2009, which turned into Ricky Rubio, for Randy Foye and Mike Miller. Ouch. Nor, does it show the trading away of 2nd round picks for cash. What it does show is a dizzying ineptitude at identifying young players.
Consider that Ernie Grunfeld has been an executive for 24 years. In that span, he has won one division title and has drafted two all stars out of a potential 48 players. One was a second round pick, Michael Redd; the other was the consensus number one overall pick, John Wall. Let that sink in for a minute: a GM of many teams that have perennially been in the lottery, has only managed to draft two all-stars in 24 years.
Selecting John Wall number 1 overall is not complicated, nor is it that hard to select Beal at number 3. Comparatively, look at the Indiana Pacers. It is much harder to select Danny Granger at 17, Roy Hibbert at 17, Paul George at 10 and Lance Stephenson at 40. Would you like to know whom the Wizards drafted in that same timeframe, with higher picks each year? Take a second look above, and let’s just say that I’m glad we had the No. 1 pick overall and not No. 4 because God knows what player Ernie would have selected.
Look around the league and you can find multiple GM’s that have selected more all-stars in the past five years than Ernie has in 24-25 years. My question is, how is he able to last that long in this cutthroat league? (I’m looking at you Ted!). Having all-stars is not the end goal per se; however, it signals the presence of talent capable of guiding us to the Holy Grail. Also, in my opinion, Ted’s playoffs or bust mandate this year came one year too early as one of the blue chips in this year’s draft may have been the key to a sure decade long contending team. Yet again, who would have been responsible for the selection of that player? But I digress.
Let’s segue back to Wall and Beal. At 23 and 20 years old, they should have a legion of solid players in their early to mid-20s around them with whom to grow. Guys that would have them contending for the playoffs every year without the salary cap pain that comes with building through free agency. The combination of Wall, Beal, and a young promising team with cap room would make DC a prime spot for any free agent that could be key for a championship run. However, would such a super star feel he could win with the current coach?
Coaching and talent maximization
Players like Wall and Beal would develop even with me as a head coach. The true measure of a head coach is what he’s able to do with less talented players. Tom Thibodeau took a D-league like team -- Ok with Noah, maybe they’re not but you catch my drift -- to the fourth-best record in the East by bringing the best out of low picks and guys cut by other teams. The 2012-13 Wizards team, although hurt, was still in my opinion better than this year’s Bulls and how many wins did we end up with again?
Randy Wittman seems to connect with his players, particularly the veterans. That’s a valuable trait. However, as the coach of a team that at the beginning of the year had eight players 25 years old or younger, the ability to develop guys is crucial. After the Vesely trade, he had five guys 25-Under that barely cracked his rotation during the regular season or the playoffs. All of them, except for Glen Rice Jr. (fifth pick of the 2nd round) were recent first round picks of ours. My thoughts are: if these young players all suck, we should fire the GM that selected them. If the coach cannot get anything out of five young draft picks, almost all of whom he’s had for at least the past two seasons, then he’s the one that should be fired. Personally, I look behind door C: Let both of them go.
One must ask him/herself what to expect going forward. The Randy Wittman who, until this year, had the distinction of being the man who coached the most regular season games in NBA history without ever making the playoffs and whose first playoff appearance had to be nearly rescued by the late season acquisition of two players in their late 30’s (Miller and Gooden)? Or should you trust that the one year/one series wonder Wittman, in his mid 50’s, will become the hot coach that he was unable to become in his first couple decades of coaching? Similarly, should you expect the Ernie who won one division title and drafted two all-stars in 24 seasons, or an Ernie who will be Popovich/Buford like and find gems in the draft every year?
I do not believe in alchemy, and to believe that professionals with such long track record pointing to mediocrity at best could be anything better than mediocre is, to me, akin to the believing that you can turn copper into gold.
Randy Wittman has given us our second conference semifinals series in over 30 years, and for that I thank him. Same as Ernie, although I suspect a better GM might have been able to get us there faster than his 11th year at the wheel. Ernie’s ability to wrangle himself out of bad contracts is by far his greatest attribute; hence, my hope that young executives that work under him have been soaking in his knowledge. In fact, that ability is indeed remarkable; therefore, keeping said young executives with the team, even with a new GM, could prove invaluable. I just do not believe that we, as passionate yet sedated D.C. basketball fans, should have to endure all the bad that comes with that single good.
Toronto, Golden State, Phoenix and Denver and even Philly and Charlotte are just some of the teams with the potential to be powerhouses in the near future. You could to that list any of the young shot team we all know of. All of those teams have a young roster they’ve been developing, young"er" GM’s and coaches and at least 1-2 first round picks in this year’s blue-chip draft. I would like to think that having made the 2nd round of the playoffs this year ensures that our future is bright; however, we do not live in a vacuum. We have to be much better than 2014 to stay competitive. Keeping Ernie and Randy after this year would be like re-signing Martell Webster last year after an out of the ordinary contract year. Like Webster showed this year, returning to his pre-contract year form, we would get the old Randy and the old Ernie. And you know what? If they were re-signed, those that support the moves would deserve the torture of watching the familiar happen. Beal and Wall deserve better.