Editor’s Note: In 2003, the Wizards made dramatic changes to their front office and roster that have shaped the course of the franchise ever since. This week, we’re going to take a look back at how the events of 2003 altered the trajectory of the franchise—for better and worse over the past 15 years.
Ernie Grunfeld took over as the Wizards’ key basketball decision maker in July 2003 and has held the position ever since. The Wizards have gone 536-678 in the regular season (.442 winning percentage) and won four playoff series during his tenure.
Back in 2014, I thought I had it all figured out. I was living and working in Arlington, Virginia at the time and without much to do during the winter months, I spent a lot of time at the Verizon Center. The Wizards finally looked like they might be turning the corner as a franchise on the heels of a playoff series win over the Bulls, They added fuel to the fire when they got off to a 22-9 start the following season. It was one of their best starts in franchise history.
With the team looking like they were about to get on a roll, I wanted to ensure that I was at as many games as possible. But even with that impressive start to the season, the Wizards had still yet to garner the attention of the Washington locals. As a result, there was a really good basketball team playing at the Verizon Center and tickets on the secondary market were well below face-value. And if you were the type of person who enjoyed going to a game in the middle of the week against a not-so-sexy-opponent (think Magic, Kings, Suns, Hornets, Bucks, etc.) you could get quite the bargain on lower bowl tickets--so I jumped all over it.
Still, I couldn’t shake how Washington was unable to reap the rewards of their success. It wasn’t like they were competing with other local teams with winning buzz. The Redskins went 4-12 that season, the Capitals were coming off of a season in which they didn’t make the playoffs, and the Nationals were fresh off of a 3-1 Divisional Series loss to the Giants.
I was baffled at first by the Wizards’ inability to generate buzz. Sure, they had spent decades mired in mediocrity, but over the past 15 years under Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards have enjoyed more success than at any other time outside of Wes Unseld time with the franchise (as a player, not a coach or executive). Why hadn’t anything changed?
You can’t blame the market. Over the past 15 years, the Capitals have shown you can grow a robust fanbase in a sport other than football. Yes, there was frustration from the team’s playoffs shortcomings, but that didn’t stop fans from showing up to games and turning Capitals into one of the league’s most popular teams. They captured the attention of the city in a way the Wizards never have, even when they were just another Washington team trying to get past the second round of the playoffs.
When Alex Ovechkin was drafted first overall in 2004, the Capitals knew they had a star on their hands. Rather than waiting for Ovechkin to come into his own, the franchise went all-in on marketing him and building excitement about future which in turn, woke a sleeping fanbase.
Meanwhile, the Wizards’ leadership let a golden opportunity slip through their hands. Months before the Capitals drafted Ovechkin, the Wizards signed Gilbert Arenas to a long-term deal and watched him blossom into a bigger star than anyone could have expected. For the first time in nearly three decades, the Wizards had a bonafide star and borderline MVP-candidate in Gilbert Arenas on their team. He averaged 29.3 points per game that season and was must-watch TV as he could explode for 50 points or knock down a game-winner on any given night.
Midway through the 2006-07 season, the Wizards had the best record in the Eastern Conference and had two All-Stars on their roster. With some smart moves around the trade deadline, or better draft picks in previous years, they could have shored up holes on the roster and made a serious playoff push. Instead, they played it safe and watched as injuries derailed their best season in decades. In turn, it killed the buzz that had started to build up in the city and when it was clear Arenas wasn’t going to return to All-Star form, Washington didn’t have anyone else who could keep new fans engaged. Perhaps if they had Rajon Rondo or Kyle Lowry waiting in the wings instead of Oleksiy Pecherov, things could have been different, but it didn’t happen.
Just three short years later, the franchise got another opportunity to regain traction and grow its fanbase when they won the draft lottery and selected John Wall with the number one overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Like Ovechkin, Wall was a young, exciting, once in a franchise type of prospect—and presented a chance for the Wizards to grow and develop a fanbase along with young nucleus. Unfortunately, botched draft picks, poor free agent signings, and other questionable decisions have made it hard for prospective fans to see past the mistakes and embrace the team in the same way fans have embraced the Capitals.
Now that I’ve experienced life as a Wizards fan first hand for some time, I’ve come to understand why it’s so difficult for people in the area to buy in. Even though it took the Capitals what felt like forever to break through and finally hoist the Stanley Cup, they converted casual fans into diehards because they were always a threat to make a championship run. It’s a lot easier to get excited and rally around a team with a shot at winning everything than it is to get excited and rally around a team whose best-case scenario is a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
It’s great that John Wall still believes the Wizards can be an elite team in the Eastern Conference, but casual fans have good reason to be skeptical based on the past 15 years. Although Ernie Grunfeld has done a better job than his predecessors of making the Wizards a team worth talking about, the team’s failure to capture the city’s attention speaks to the opportunities they’ve squandered along the way.