We've reached the very midway point of the 2011-12 season, which is kind of refreshing given that the All-Star Break usually signifies the 60-percent mark of the year. As such, we'll be running midseason evaluation threads for each player on the team over the next several days. Our final grade is for Ernie Grunfeld and Ted Leonsis, who are grouped together for reasons I'll explain in the synopsis.
PLAYER ACQUISITIONS IN THE LAST EIGHT MONTHS:
- Selected Jan Vesely with the No. 6 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft
- Selected Chris Singleton with the No. 18 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft
- Selected Shelvin Mack with the No. 35 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft
- Did not move up to select Enes Kanter, Derrick Williams or any other prospect that went above the Wizards' sixth pick.
- Signed Roger Mason to a one-year, veteran's minimum contract.
- Signed Nick Young to the one-year, $3.7 million qualifying offer rather than give him a long-term contract.
- Signed Maurice Evans to a one-year, veteran's minimum contract.
- Traded cap space for Ronny Turiaf, a 2012 second-round pick from the Dallas Mavericks, a 2013 second-round pick from the New York Knicks and cash.
- Declined to re-sign Josh Howard, who signed with the Utah Jazz for one year for the veteran's minimum (?).
- Declined to sign Yi Jianlian, who eventually went to the Dallas Mavericks.
- Did not use the amnesty clause on Rashard Lewis.
- Signed, then released, Larry Owens and Hamady Ndiaye.
- Fired Flip Saunders, installed Randy Wittman as head coach.
Synopsis: We're going to judge these two men together because Leonsis has said several times that they are in "lockstep" with each other. So let's get to it.
Obviously, measuring the success of a plan like the one Leonsis has enacted is difficult. If the goal is to stay patient and build around young talent, there will be losing. By that nature, the plan can neither be deemed successful or unsuccessful right now, and in many ways, this makes it even more difficult to evaluate Leonsis and Grunfeld. That said, it's certainly easy to say the Wizards have not demonstrated the necessary progress to feel confident about the future of the team.
Kyle Weidie had a really great post at Truth About It that summed up the Wizards' current progress well. The strongest point made was that two teams that decided to rebuild recently -- Cleveland and Utah -- are much further along than the Wizards. Here, we have to weigh how much of that is due to methodology and how much of that is due to application.
Let's start with methodology. We all know about Leonsis' theory towards team-building. The positives: it allows the Wizards to maintain cap room and prosper with cheap talent. Keeping young players shows the organization's commitment to them, which should in turn foster an environment where development is emphasized and consistent. The major problem with this, at least compared to Leonsis' other sport, is that progression in the NBA is never linear. If a young player struggles with a certain set of teammates in the NHL, they can be placed on another line with different teammates. In the NBA, everyone must play with each other, and so all bad fits become magnified. John Wall's own lack of shooting limits the space of his teammates', and the lack of shooting of Wall's teammates limit his space. I'm not too well-versed in hockey strategy, but I don't think you have that same effect in that sport. That means that you can't just acquire young talent willy-nilly: you need to have a mix of every kind of skill and every kind of player to succeed.
Of course, that could very well be more of an execution issue. One thing that strikes me about the Cavaliers and Jazz is that they have productive veterans on the roster. Utah has an All-Star-quality frontcourt, and even besides that, they have guys like Earl Watson and Josh Howard (ironic, I know) who play good, solid minutes. Cleveland has Antawn Jamison (even more ironic, I know), Ramon Sessions and, before he got injured, Anderson Varejao. The Wizards' veterans are guys who can't play anymore, and when you can't play anymore, it's very hard to assert yourself as a leading locker room voice.
Basically, if I had to sum up the Wizards' problems right now with management, it'd come down to the following factors:
- The idea of building around young talent is very difficult to full off -- probably more of a Leonsis issue.
- The young talent acquired is not top-level young talent. -- probably a Grunfeld issue, though a lot of it is luck.
- The young talent acquired doesn't fit well together. -- definitely a Grunfeld issue
- There aren't enough quality veterans who can play that bridge the gap. -- probably 75/25 a Grunfeld issue, because it depends how much Leonsis may be emphasizing the need for this.
- The culture that has developed doesn't foster a winning environment -- this is the toughest element of this part of the exercise to judge. You could take this argument so many different ways, and yet, we're always dealing with incomplete information because the only real hard evidence to say this is that the Wizards are currently losing and have been losing for a while. That said, there's certainly reason to worry about the team's public attitude after wins, as well as how losses often get written off. Lack of individual player development may go into this as well. Here's where I'm going to open it up to the floor to decide who is to blame.