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It's just the beginning

I've never been one to place much value in newspaper columnists, but the Post's Mike Wise is an exception.  Today, he came out with a really poignant column, emphasizing the importance of this year's offseason for this team.

Ernie Grunfeld has less than 48 hours to make a decision, and it has little to do with picking 16th tomorrow. The NBA draft is small change next to the real dilemma.

Grunfeld has to ask himself whether he truly believes the Wizards could have replaced Cleveland in the NBA Finals if Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler had been healthy. That means not drastically altering the current roster.

Or does Grunfeld see what most saw, the team that was slip-sliding away at the end of the season, whose defensive breakdowns made it impossible for the Wizards to contend, much less get out of the first round?

Which end of the argument the franchise's architect comes down on -- what Grunfeld decides -- means everything to Washington's future.

It's also not an easy question to answer.  On the one hand, this team was in first place in the East as late as February, and that came after a really slow start.  They were beating good teams on the road, and nobody was stopping Gilbert and Caron Butler.  DeShawn Stevenson was becoming a solid fourth option, and Brendan Haywood was happy and playing well.  On the other hand, even while they were winning, the defense wasn't getting any better, the point differential was spotty, and they were getting lucky in close games.  Even before Antawn Jamison, Butler, and Arenas went down, the team was fading, and a first-round victory was by no means a guarantee, as much as delusional fans claim it was.  Improvement should come either way, but marginal improvement may not be enough at this point.

Ernie's default position at this point may be to not do much.  He addressed reporters yesterday, and gave an exclusive interview to Comcast SportsNet.  In both cases, he stressed that this team was close to being a bona fide contender.  

"We feel good about where we are and what we have," Grunfeld said. "We think that we're very close to being able to compete with anyone. We showed that last year."

Which is why I'm a little concerned with these comments he made to the Washington Times.  

Despite the perceived depth of the tomorrow's NBA Draft, new Washington Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld says the player he selects with the 16th pick probably will help the team later rather than sooner.

"It's very seldom you get a player at 16 that is going to come in and help you right away," said Grunfeld, who yesterday received his new title as part of an ongoing reorganization within parent company Washington Sports and Entertainment. "The picks that usually help a team are the top five through eight, and those teams are not playoff teams.

"When you are a veteran playoff team and you have the core of your team coming back, it's going to be difficult for any player picked in the late teens to come in and break the lineup."

It goes on to say that both the Georgia Tech guys -- Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young -- are right on the team's radar.  If I have one preference in this draft, it's that neither of those guys are the pick.  There are tons of guys who can help now, and if this team really is that close, they could use this deep draft to add a role player that could be the final piece.  Crittenton and Young are both extremely raw, and they wouldn't contribute much next year.  Neither are good passers or defenders, so neither really helps to solve any of the Wizards' problems.  They may very well become excellent players, but the Wizards system isn't the place to develop them.

But there are two silver linings here.  First, according to Chad Ford, Young will be picked by the Hornets with the 13th pick.  With a point guard like Chris Paul giving him the ball, Young should develop much more effectively.  It makes sense for the Hornets to pick him if Nick Young is off the board.

Second, this is Ernie Grunfeld we're talking about.  The man knows how to build good teams.  He took the Knicks to the NBA Finals, and if it weren't for Michael Jordan, they could easily have won it all.  He took Milwaukee to one game from the NBA Finals, even though they had no good big men and lacked depth beyond their Big 3.  With all due respect to blog friend Kelly Dwyer (easily the best writer at SI), he's better than the 11th best GM in the league.  I'd place him behind only R.C. Buford, Donnie Nelson, Bryan Colangelo, John Paxson, Kevin O'Connell, and maybe Kevin Pritchard and Sam Presti.  There are few GMs in this league that I'd trust to figure something out more than Ernie Grunfeld.

Like Wise said, this is a crossroads for this team, and the draft is just the beginning.  But even though I may disagree slightly with Ernie's draft strategy, it's a hell of a lot better than Wes Unseld.  Frankly, it's a hell of a lot better than anyone else that's been here.  Wizards fans should be counting their blessings.