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Ernie Grunfeld’s replacement faces several challenges getting the Wizards on track

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NHL: Stadium Series-Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis finally realized he couldn’t lower the bar for success any further and fired team president Ernie Grunfeld on Tuesday. This is something many have expected since he took control of the team in 2010, but which Leonsis has avoided by setting the most modest of goals. Leonsis articulated a higher standard this year, which he revised downward midseason. The failure to reach even the modest midseason goals has resulted in the ouster of the man responsible for every aspect of the team’s operations — the roster, the coaching staff, and the front office.

During Grunfeld’s 16 seasons at the helm, the Wizards ranked just 24th in winning percentage, and reached the playoffs eight times — never making it past the second round. The long tenure and bad results were a combination that defied logic. Only three other current NBA executives have lasted as long (San Antonio’s R.C. Buford, Miami’s Pat Riley, and Boston’s Danny Ainge). Those three teams rank first, fourth and seventh in winning percentage during the time Grunfeld has run the Wizards, and all three have won championships.

The team showed an across-the-board futility. They ranked 22nd in offensive rating, and 25th in defense. In the key areas that drive who wins and loses in the NBA, the Wizards ranked near the bottom under Grunfeld’s leadership. While things were better since Leonsis bought the team from Abe Pollin’s estate, the Wizards were still just 19th in winning percentage, and reached the playoffs just four times in nine seasons.

The move is one Leonsis has considered for months and prepared for at least as long. He began taking meetings to discuss the state of the franchise and its future with individuals outside the Wizards organization as early as January — weeks before his infamous “We will never, ever tank,” proclamation. As has been reported elsewhere, he started talking with search firms as the team’s chances of reaching the playoffs dwindled.

Rumors are swirling about the identity of the new team president and include names like Troy Weaver (long-time Oklahoma City executive who’s from the DC area), Mike Zarren (key member of Ainge’s staff in Boston), and Tommy Sheppard (part of the Wizards front office throughout Grunfeld’s tenure). It would be difficult to go too wrong with any of those three, though if it was my decision I’d hire from outside the organization.

My guess is that Sheppard has a good shot at the top job because of Leonsis’ success replacing Capitals General Manager George McPhee by promoting Brian MacLellan. A key difference: the Caps had a long record of regular season success and postseason frustration. The Wizards have been characterized by mediocrity and futility.

Whoever ends up replacing Grunfeld faces the challenge of rebuilding a team that has spent much of the past 16 seasons mortgaging its future. They don’t have their own second round pick for another five years, and the potential picks owed to them by Atlanta and Chicago are unlikely to convey. Somehow, Grunfeld constructed a team that enters the offseason with just two rotation players under contract (Bradley Beal and Troy Brown), but no meaningful cap space and no chance of competing for top free agents even if they jettison everyone.

Next season, the Wizards have $53.3 million committed to John Wall, who will most of the season with a torn Achilles, and Ian Mahinmi, who is unplayable. They’re likely to owe another $5.6 million to center Dwight Howard, who they won’t want to play because of the emergence of the 21-year old Bryant. That’s more than half the salary cap.

The Wall extension has been — and will be — much discussed. As I’ve written previously, Wall was unlikely to produce at a level close to the salary he’ll collect, even without the Achilles injury. The $169 million they’ll pay him over the next four seasons is a significant drag on their ability to attract the talent it’ll take to construct a contender. Realistically, the team will not compete seriously for anything meaningful until they’ve finished paying for Wall’s extension.

Perhaps most important, Grunfeld’s replacement will need to reach agreement with Leonsis on short-term goals that fit together and move the team toward the long-term goal of becoming a championship contender. Trading future assets for modest benchmarks like “making the playoffs” needs to stop. For the next few seasons, their aim should be to stockpile young talent and establish a work-hard culture that wins by playing the right way — not by taking shortcuts like trading picks and young players for veterans.

While replacing Grunfeld with a savvy executive is critical, it won’t matter if Leonsis isn’t ready to change too. If Leonsis persists with his annual “make the playoffs” mandates, the new executive and the coaching staff will continue to swap the future for the now and the team will be stuck in the middle.