One of the least discussed aspects of Ernie Grunfeld’s Wizards tenure is what a good situation he walked into when he took over the job in 2003. Although the Wizards didn’t have a lot of roster assets, they also had no bad, long-term deals weighing them down. They also had control of all but one of their future picks. You couldn’t ask for much more of a blank slate.
When Ted Leonsis took over as Wizards owner in 2010, Grunfeld had reset the team for a total rebuild. The only negative asset was Gilbert Arenas’ disastrous extension, but even that didn’t matter much because Washington was so far away from being competitive they didn’t need to worry about free agents.
In both situations, Grunfeld could follow the tried-and-true method of bottoming out, acquiring young assets, and reaping the rewards as they develop. He didn’t have to balance win-now objectives and developing young players. Everything aligned in one direction. His successor won’t be so fortunate.
Right now, the Wizards are built like a team that can’t decide if it’s contending or rebuilding. They have two talented guards who are paid well and haven’t shown any indication they want to leave. If you could get Wall healthy, add a third player, and bring in some solid supporting players, you could get Washington back to what they were in 2016-17, with a more sustainable outlook.
But outside of that tandem, Washington looks like a team that can pivot to a rebuild rather quickly. They only have a few players signed for next season. They could flip Bradley Beal for picks and/or young players to kickstart a rebuild. Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard are both going into the final year of their deals. 19-year-old Troy Brown Jr. would fit right in with the timeline of a rebuild. They could keep some of their other young players like Thomas Bryant, Bobby Portis, and Jabari Parker if so inclined. John Wall’s contract would be an obstacle, but like Arenas in 2010, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the team is going with younger, cheaper players as part of a rebuild.
But no matter what path the next GM takes, there’s a chance circumstances outside of their control could force them to make adjustments. The Wizards could pursue a path back to contention, only to get undercut if Beal asks for a trade or leaves in free agency. They could go try to go full rebuild and get rebuffed by ownership. Or worse, they could embrace a full rebuild and get the short end of the stick thanks to lottery reforms that have made it harder for teams reap the rewards of tanking.
There isn’t a standard blueprint for how to rebuild from this position, which means it will take considerable time to get a sense for whether or not the next GM is taking Washington to healthier place as a franchise. Success and failure could take many forms with the next regime, and the early results may not show how things will look five years from now.
That’s why it’s so critical for the Wizards to get this hire right. Washington has to give their next GM time to sort out where the team needs to go and what steps it needs to take to get there. Whether they embrace a rebuild or retool around Wall and Beal, aligning the roster with the future vision of the team will not happen overnight. Let’s hope when the dust settles from this next round of construction that there’s a path toward future success or if nothing else, a healthier place to start over again.