It has been nearly seventeen years since the New York Knicks removed Ernie Grunfeld from his role as team president and general manager. The team he had assembled faced finishing in the lottery after four straight first-round exits. Coach Jeff Van Gundy insisted on running the offense through an aging Patrick Ewing despite Grunfeld retooling the team in the offseason. Charles Oakley and John Starks were out, Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell were in; controversial moves made with middling resources in a season where soap opera drama defined a proud franchise falling short of expectations...until they clawed their way to the eighth seed and an NBA Finals berth with Camby and Sprewell coming up huge.
Before the Knicks could author their eleventh hour Cinderella story, ownership's patience ran out. A season-long feud between Jeff Van Gundy and Ernie Grunfeld culminated as the team fell to .500 with eight games to go in a lockout-shortened season. There were conflicting accounts as to who made what decision for what reason amid a media war that would impress even in D.C. Dave Checketts reached out to Phil Jackson about replacing Van Gundy just days before changing Grunfeld's job title from General Manager to Consultant, effectively firing him. Checketts would be fired in May 2001 with Van Gundy walking out in December later that year, without returning to the Finals.
It was a devastating end for a man who grew up a Knicks fan in New York. After being drafted by the Bucks, he joined the Knicks in '82, finishing out his career as half of the Bernie and Ernie Show. He worked as a Madison Square Garden radio analyst, becoming an assistant coach before entering the administrative side of the Knicks, so saith Wikipedia, amen. Seventeen years in the employ of his dream organization came to an end at the hands of a trusted friend and ally over dessert.
After a four-year stint with the Bucks, the Wizards brought Ernie to D.C. as General Manager. Thirteen years later and counting finds the long-time executive again under heavy fire. This time there are no franchise politics at play, no pitched battles in the media. He has the organization's loyalty, past what many, if not most, would call reasonable cause, having been given the freedom to craft an era of Wizards basketball.
There are parallels between this off-season and Grunfeld's last in New York. Rather than bringing in a dedication-challenged, defensive-minded big man in Camby to back up an aging center in Ewing, Grunfeld brought in a high-priced, defensive-minded big man in Ian Mahinmi to back up an aging center in Marcin Gortat. The jury is out. Instead of bringing in a scoring sixth man and known powder keg in Latrell Sprewell on the cheap, he brought in a defensive-minded big man with a jump shot in Markieff Morris on the cheap, which looks like a big win.
The major difference in between this season and and '98-'99 is the market. New York would not tolerate anything less than contending while D.C. at-large doesn't pay enough attention to the Wizards to know what they will or won't tolerate. As a result, only the hardcore fan base was dialed in when Ted Leonsis took control of the team seven years into Ernie's reign, reset the franchise clock, and gave Ernie a new lease on life. At that point, he was free to succeed or fail on his own merits. Those merits are coming due.
There are three kinds of winning in the NBA: winning in the regular season, in the playoffs, and in the Finals. Since 2010, the Wizards haven't done enough in the first two categories to sniff the third. While the lack of postseason progress (and attendant regression) has tested the lower bounds of the reset's expectations, 2016's cap space shimmered, both promise and threat. If the Wizards were going to transform into a contender, the free agent period would be the catalyst or else.
The Wizards finished out of the playoffs last season after consecutive second round exits. They failed to secure a meeting with Kevin Durant. There was a whisper they were favored by Al Horford before he ended up in a Celtics jersey with the Rockets finishing a "close second". Ernie brought in Scott Brooks and promptly committed $30 million a year for the next three years to Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson, and Jason Smith. Mahinmi tore his meniscus before the season started, Nicholson barely played, Smith played too much, and the Wizards found themselves a stone's throw away from the worst record in the league. Recently though, a bench among the league's worst at best despite a massive cap commitment is showing signs of life among other promising factors.
The salary cap is spoken far and expectations have reached crush depth, while every card Ernie has thought to play in over a decade of work hasn't taken the team far enough. He has finally exhausted the deck and come to a familiar pressure in a quieter place.
I preached patience in the opening years of the Ted Leonsis reset and brimstone as John Wall entered his prime with nothing to show for it, but that doesn't matter to me any longer. The die is cast and getting angry about what opportunities have come and gone doesn't serve me in any way. I find myself grateful that Ted will almost certainly let the season run its course before making a decision about Ernie's future in D.C. If the Wizards under Scott Brooks write their own Cinderella story, setting aside my own judgment, I am glad that at the least, Ernie Grunfeld will be there to see it.