Ernie Grunfeld wanted Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green to return for another season — and maybe beyond. Had he not gotten fired, there was a good chance both would wear a Washington Wizards jersey next season.
Since he bought the Wizards in 2010, Ted Leonsis has taken a hands-off approach to running the team. He trusted Grunfeld could eventually configure a contender in D.C., despite the years of evidence that pointed to the contrary.
While Leonsis was probably a bit too forgiving with Grunfeld and the decisions he made during his seemingly life-long tenure as the team’s president, Leonsis’ approach, at least in theory, is logical.
Theoretically, the owner shouldn’t have much of a say as to what happens basketball-wise. Teams with pervasive owners usually end up having competing ideologies within the front office, creating a toxic culture that’s almost impossible to reverse unless the team is sold (See: Sacramento Kings; Phoenix Suns).
That’s why Grunfeld was given full reign over the basketball operations, and why he was allowed to make a last-ditch effort to qualify for the playoffs by trading Kelly Oubre Jr., a 23-year-old wing with promise, for a 33-year-old Trevor Ariza in the final season of his contract.
When it became clear that the last-ditch effort wouldn’t amount to anything, he still allowed Grunfeld to keep going — to keep running with the veterans like Ariza and Jeff Green until the playoffs were mathematically an impossible goal.
Lakers are interested, but Trevor Ariza and Washington Wizards remain in each's future plans, league sources tell ESPN. Ariza is enthusiastic about re-signing with Washington. Wizards' trades creating financial flexibility that'll make it easier to bring Ariza back on new deal— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 7, 2019
Looking back, the Wizards should have — and could have — flipped their veterans for future draft picks or young players worth fliers.
The likes of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers were craving talent, desperately seeking a way to round out their roster for the same reason Grunfeld acquired Ariza in the first place - to make a push for the playoffs.
Both teams made several acquisitions without the help of Washington, but the players acquired — particularly in the deal that sent Ivica Zubac, a promising big man on an affordable deal, from the Lakers to the Clippers for Mike Muscala — could’ve easily been flipped to D.C. Teams sought shooters — players they could use to provide a spark off the bench — and they called the Wizards, inquiring about Ariza and Green.
Instead, Grunfeld clung onto the players, likely to run it back another year. At that point, his future was unclear. Given the history Grunfeld had with the Wizards, it was foreseeable that Leonsis would give him another chance — blame the losses on John Wall’s Achilles injury and Dwight Howard’s absence.
Now, Grunfeld is gone, and the Wizards have entered the season with just five players on the books: Bradley Beal, Troy Brown Jr., John Wall, who could miss the entire 2018-19 season recovering from an Achilles tear, Dwight Howard, who played just nine games before getting back surgery, and Ian Mahinmi, who’s virtually unplayable and will be a candidate to get waived via the stretch provision.
With those five players, the Wizards have more than $58 million tied up in dead money - and plenty of roster spots to fill. Had Grunfeld remained in charge, at least a few of those spots would be taken up by Ariza and Green. Depending on how the Wizards’ GM search shakes out, the new decision-maker won’t have any emotional ties to the veterans, making their futures much more uncertain than it was just a few weeks ago.