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Trading picks: Why it's Ernie Grunfeld's fault

First, a warning.  I'm going to do something that almost no Wizards fans, to the best of my knowledge, will do.  I'm going to criticize Ernie Grunfeld.

Why?  Because this language over trading the 18th pick is really bothering me.  I'm not saying that we should absolutely rule out trading the pick if it means we get significant help, because that would be silly.  What gets me, though, is that for someone as close to the vest as Ernie Grunfeld, we're getting an awful lot of talk coming straight from him about trading his pick.  It was the only thing of substance he mentioned in his press conference three weeks ago, and today, Ivan Carter, who is closer to Ernie Grunfeld than any outsider, led his first blog post in over a week saying "don't be surprised" if Ernie trades the pick.   That's unfortunate, because even though this class is weak at the top, it's very solid in the middle.  Just look at some of the guys that could be had with our 18th pick.  They'd certainly be able to help us out.

Now, Ivan is saying Ernie wants to trade the pick because the Wizards have enough young guys on their bench.  As he writes:

The Wizards already have four young players in Andray Blatche, Oleksiy Pecherov, Dominic McGuire and Nick Young and don't really need to have another young fella sitting on the bench unless the workout process unveils a young player who can really help next year.

Eh, I think he's really pushing it with this point.  Sure, they have Young, Blatche, McGuire, and Pecherov on the bench, but when this team is fully healthy, they also have AD (33 at the start of next year), Etan Thomas (30), Darius Songaila (30) and, if he's retained, Roger Mason (29).  In fact, the Wizards' average age, 27.1, makes them only the 14th-youngest team in the league, and there are plenty of solid clubs (Golden State, Utah, LA Lakers, potentially Portland, Chicago and Atlanta) who are younger. 

So is this really about youth?  I doubt it.  My guess is that's Ernie position to the public, and Ivan was spun a little bit to believe it instead of giving the position a bit of thought. 

What is it really about?  It's clear that Ernie is shopping this pick because he believes it's the only asset he can used to make a roster upgrade, unless he wishes to give up on Andray Blatche or one of his three rookies, of which only Young has much value.   And that's a problem that Ernie has nobody but himself to blame.

In a lot of ways, I think Ernie is tremendously underrated as a general manager.  Consider that he has built the core of a three-time playoff squad through free agency and trading.  He signed Gilbert Arenas to a contract that seemed extravagant at the time, but proved to be incredibly savvy when Arenas realized his potential.  He acquired Antawn Jamison at the same time that he dumped the horribly disappointing Jerry Stackhose, a huge achievement.  Then, there's the Caron/Kwame trade, which really needs no words at this point.

But his one Achilles heel is his inability to sign role players to shrewd contracts, and that is costing him right now.  In particular, I'm talking about the contracts of Etan, Songaila and AD.  I don't think money has been a huge problem, other than with Thomas, but what really hurts is the duration of each of those contracts, because it makes them practically untradeable.  Etan's deal, signed after the 2004 season, was for six years, which is a killer because, when combined with Brendan Haywood's five-year deal after the 2005 season, it meant we're essentially locked into that two-headed monster at center for the next five years after the 2005 season.  That's too long for a middling duo, even with Brendan's breakout season.

AD, meanwhile, was somewhat of a bargain in my eyes as far as the money was concerned.  He was really good his last two years in Seattle, and to get him for the mid-level was a nice bargain.  The problem was, again, the years.  Five years for a 29-year old backup point guard really kills your cap flexibility. 

But AD's contract isn't nearly as infuriating as Songaila's.  Again, you have a similar situation.  The amount of money for Darius wasn't a major problem, but why the five-year contract?  Was Darius' demand so high that we needed to do that?  Worse yet, if Ernie has invested so heavily in Andray Blatche, why sign someone who plays his position to a five-year contract.  It's not fiscally smart, no matter how solidly Songaila plays. 

We've seen this from Ernie before.  He was a very, very good GM in New York and Milwaukee, constantly turning trash into paydirt.  In New York, he traded Charles Oakley for Marcus Camby, pulled off the Latrell Sprewell heist, signed Allan Houston, and traded Anthony Mason for Larry Johnson, all moves that increased the Knicks' window with Patrick Ewing.  In Miwaukee, he pushed a perennially mediocre club to within one game of the NBA Finals.  But in both cases, he clogged up the payroll with bad contracts to role players.  In New York, it was Charlie Ward and his six-year 28 million dollar contract.  In Milwaukee, it was the disastrous summer of 2001, where he signed Tim Thomas to a six-year 67 million dollar deal and gave 35-year old Anthony Mason a four-year deal.  Notice how when those teams had to rebuild, they dealt their stars well below their market value, and have yet to recover. 

Again, I'm not here to suggest Ernie is a bad GM.  Far from it.  But these inflexible contracts to role players may end up costing a potentially valuable asset in a relatively deep draft.  And for that, we should be disappointed.