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End of an Error: A look back on the one-year anniversary of the Ernie Grunfeld firing

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It has now been a calendar year since Washington parted ways with their long-time President of Basketball Operations.

Wizards Introductory Draft Press Conference Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Today is the anniversary of Ted Leonsis finally firing Ernie Grunfeld — something he should have done a few weeks after taking full ownership of the Wizards.

In 2010.

That Grunfeld stuck around as long as he did is testimony to Leonsis’ ability to set preposterously bad goals for the team. This was typically done with an earnest “we’re being completely transparent” sleight of hand.

For years, Grunfeld and Leonsis talked about “contending for the playoffs,” which dressed up a modest goal with a lofty word typically associated with teams that have championship aspirations. The bad goals and slippery messaging betrayed a toxic stew of poor strategic thinking and political skill. Grunfeld could talk a good game and with the bar set low enough, he could trip over it and claim enough success to keep his job.

When the team failed to reach even meager goals, he was always able to point to injuries or luck or coaching.

Summarizing Grunfeld’s tenure, it’s almost hard to know where to start. In virtually ever aspect, the Wizards were a failure. They lost games (a .438 winning percentage over his 16 years, good for 7th worst during the span), they blundered into scandal, they whiffed on draft picks and screwed up player development, they squandered draft picks and money on bad trades and free agent signings, they gave away opportunities to pick promising youngsters because they were arrogant enough to believe they had “enough” talent, they mishandled injury diagnoses and rehabilitation...

I mean, here’s how preposterous things got: in Grunfeld’s final season in charge, the Wizards were surly, lethargic and dysfunctional. The #SoGrunfeld solution was to swap 23-year old Kelly Oubre for 33-year old Trevor Ariza.

This is what’s referred to in NBA circles as a “bad trade.” Oubre was having a better season. Ariza was showing abundant signs of being washed up. Oubre might never become an All-Star or even a quality starter, but it was 100% certain his next 5-8 years would be better than Ariza’s.

Now layer in that the Wizards season was already lost. They were out of the playoffs and wouldn’t get close. They would finish the season 30-52. Somehow, Grunfeld decided the The Move to salvage that wreck of a season was trade a 23-year old with athleticism and ability for a 33-year old reclamation project who topped out six years previously at a bit better than average.

It’s ridiculous.

Yet somehow, Grunfeld made it even worse. It was to be a three-team deal that included the Memphis Grizzlies, and Grunfeld got mixed up or confused or befuddled or something and offered the Suns the wrong Brooks.

What’s wild is a) that wasn’t even Grunfeld’s worst move running the Wizards, and b) may not have been his worst that season (trading Otto Porter for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, who both (predictably) left in the offseason) was probably worse.

For worst move, I offer three choices. I could easily make it five or six or nine. You make the call.

Signing Eric Maynor. I went looking for what I wrote about the deal at the time and stumbled into this doozy of a Grunfeld quote about the offseason:

I think we had some goals of what we wanted to accomplish. We wanted to upgrade our backup point guard position and Eric [Maynor] has been with us now, three weeks in a row. He’s very solid, very steady. He brings a little poise to the game. He knows how to play. So we feel we’ve upgraded that position. We wanted to get a stretch four and Al [Harrington] will provide that for us. And we also wanted to make sure our young players continue to develop. Our young players, like Seraphin and Vesely, as Randy just spoke about, and Bradley Beal.

I’ll get to Maynor in a moment, but I couldn’t let this one slip into the ether. In a few sentences, Grunfeld is happy about signing Maynor based on what he’s seeing in pickup games, getting Al Harrington to be a stretch four (even though Harrington missed almost all of the previous season with an illness, was 33 years old, and had never been much good anyway), and talked up Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely (who were two of the least productive players in the NBA the previous season). These are four players who had a high likelihood of failing (and would go on to fail with the Wizards), and Grunfeld was talking them up like they were important pieces to the puzzle.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote in response to this quote back in September 2013:

Here, Grunfeld is making the same assertion I’ve been seeing all summer — the Wizards have upgraded at backup PG by signing Eric Maynor. Maybe Grunfeld and “everyone” will turn out to be correct, but I don’t think so. My analysis reveals Maynor as unproductive throughout his career — both before and after his knee injury.

Last season, A.J. Price was better. Per 36 minutes, Maynor generated exactly one assist more than Price. But, Price shot better from the floor and the free throw line, got nearly twice as many rebounds, and had 1.2 fewer turnovers per 36 minutes.

For what (in my analysis) is actually a DOWNgrade at backup PG, the Wizards spent their biannual exception. On the first of day of free agency. Which meant that they didn’t have the BAE to spend later when they could have signed other reserve PGs who would have been upgrades over Price, or when they could have signed a reserve big man like DeJuan Blair. But, hey, who needs depth in the frontcourt when you have Seraphin and Jan Vesely?

Yes, the Wizards did trade for Blair the following offseason and he was out of shape and unproductive during his two seasons in Washington. 2013-14 — the season I thought the Wizards should have signed him — was the last decent year of his career.

Signing Ian Mahinmi. This move was bad enough on its own, but the circumstances compound it. First the signing: they gave four years and $64 million to a journeyman center who was coming off the best season of his career — in a contract year — and was about to turn 30. It was his only season that rated above average in my analysis, and the preceding three seasons and 3500 minutes were at near replacement level. I repeat: four years, $64 million for a guy whose career was slightly better than replacement level.

But, like the Oubre for Ariza trade with the wrong Brooks kicker, this one gets worse. It was the 2016, the summer they were supposed to sign Kevin Durant. They’d been saving cap space since 2014. They were going to bring Durant home. Except, a bunch of teams were pursuing the same cap space strategy, which meant there would be competitors. And, the Wizards hadn’t really shown themselves to be adept recruiters. So, it’s a dubious strategy to begin with.

But it gets worse.

The NBA had a new TV deal that would inject billions of dollars into the league and increase the salary cap. The Wizards had all the constructive notice they could want because Leonsis was on the owners committee that negotiated the broadcast package. He knew or should have known exactly what was in it.

But, let’s say Leonsis did a bad job of pass-along, which is entirely plausible. The deal was publicly announced before the 2014-15 season. The players union formally rejected cap smoothing in March 2015.

So, with the knowledge that half the league would have maximum salary cap space, and an offseason and a full season to prepare, Grunfeld didn’t revise his “max cap space” strategy. He didn’t pursue good players who signed under the old CBA (they’d almost instantly become bargains in the new salary environment). Friend and sometimes Bullets Forever contributor Ben Becker suggested exactly this strategy in 2015 and again in 2016. An outsider businessperson sized up the situation and recognized an opportunity for a new strategy. Ultimate insider Ernie Grunfeld — and all his men — missed it and he stuck to the all-in for Durant plan.

Then Durant didn’t even take a meeting with the Wizards.

Plan B wasn’t bad — they went after Al Horford. But, he signed with the Celtics. Plan C was insanity: big money for Mahinmi and then multiyear contracts for Jason Smith and Andrew Nicholson. That same season, Grunfeld paid a first round pick (that became Jarrett Allen) to the Nets to rent Bojan Bogdanovic for a couple months and get rid of the Nicholson deal.

The smarter move — again something that numerous outsiders suggested at the time — would have been to sign leftover free agents on short contracts and go back into free agency when fewer teams had money to spend, or take draft picks to rent cap space to other teams. Instead, Grunfeld handcuffed the Wizards to multiple years with scrubs.

That contract extension for Andray Blatche. Blatche was coming off the best stretch of his career, but he was still inefficient, out of shape and wasn’t playing defense. Shockingly, he arrived to training camp the following season out of shape, was inefficient, didn’t play defense and was a locker room malcontent. Things got worse from there and the Wizards ended up using the amnesty clause to release him before his contract extension had even begun.

I could keep going with the bad moves — he was on the job 16 years. I mean, in 2011, he had one of the most destructive draft nights in franchise history picking Jan Vesely ahead of Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Vucevic.

He then picked Chris Singleton over Tobias Harris, Kenneth Faried, Nikola Mirotic, Reggie Jackson, Jimmy Butler and Bojan Bogdanovic.

In the second round, he chose Shelvin Mack instead of Chandler Parsons, Jon Leuer, Davis Bertans and Isaiah Thomas.

THIS WAS ALL IN ONE NIGHT!

Crazy thing: Mack was the best player Grunfeld picked in 2011. They cut him twice to keep less productive guys. Mack ended up becoming a decent backup PG and played eight seasons.

In 2008, he gave up a first round pick for Javaris Crittenton, who was terrible, and Mike James, who was terrible and 33. Of course, he was really trying to dump Antonio Daniels, who’d become unhappy with the team’s immaturity. James’ next stop was Turkey. Crittenton was the other guy in the Gungate scandal with Arenas, and ended up in prison for murder.

The headlines from stories I wrote through the years include gems like:

  • Wizards Roll with NBA’s Worst Bench (2016)
  • History Hates This Year’s Wizards (2016)
  • Wizards Update: Death Spiral (2015)
  • Wizards Update: The Everyone Problem (2015)
  • Wizards Update: A Season of Discontent (2015)
  • Upon Further Review: Grunfeld Still Not Good at His Job (2014)
  • Why Ernie Grunfeld Hasn’t Been Fired (2014) — heavy sarcasm here
  • Should the Wizards Give Wittman a Sympathy Firing (2014)
  • Wizards Lack of Depth Continues to Hurt (2013)
  • Wizards Consistent in Futility (2013)
  • Wizards Plan Doesn’t Add Up (2013)
  • Gortat Trade is Culmination of Series of Bad Moves (2013)
  • Wizards Under Grunfeld Month by Month (2013)

It wasn’t all bad, of course. Grunfeld’s first transaction was to sign Gilbert Arenas. The deal to get Nene was pretty good. They got to 49 wins, were a game seven from the Eastern Conference Finals, and he did pick Bradley Beal and John Wall.

Still, the record is one of futility. He lasted 16 seasons in Washington. The only franchise leaders who kept their jobs as long won championships: Pat Riley, R.C. Buford, Danny Ainge. Joe Dumars was a Pistons legend. He won titles as a player and as an executive. When the team’s fortunes went sour, he got fired. Grunfeld stayed.

Grunfeld-built teams were about a point per 100 possessions worse than average on both ends of the floor. They were worse than average on offense nine times in 16 years; worse than average on defense 12 times.

In a weak Eastern Conference, their average division finish was 3rd. They won the division once in 16 seasons. In a perfect measure of their persistent mediocrity, they made the playoffs just eight times — in a league where more than half the teams reach the postseason.

Grunfeld’s penchant for giving away second round picks left the cupboard relatively bare, which makes the job of his successor a bit more difficult. Tommy Sheppard, who’s been with the team throughout Grunfeld’s time in charge, has done well with marginal moves, but he’s been tasked with a fast reload — perhaps a signal that poor goal-setting and magical thinking aren’t a thing of the past for this franchise.

But, on this first anniversary, be happy that Ernie Grunfeld is no longer running the team. It’s unlikely Sheppard could do worse.