The anniversary of Ernie Grunfeld’s firing gave me an opportunity to revisit some of his greatest blunders. But, his reign wasn’t all blunders. Sometimes his moves were kinda average. In a few instances they were even excellent.
As an aside, want some wild reading? Take a look at transactions he made as president of the New York Knicks. It’s kind of a mixed bag of good and bad, but his first coaching move was to hire Pat Riley, who he later traded to the Miami Heat for a first round pick. Next up: Don Nelson. After that: Jeff Van Gundy.
Want a case of mental whiplash? He signed Scott Brooks as a street free agent and a year later traded him in a package to get Chris Mills and two second round picks. Yes, Ernest Grunfeld, serial seller of second round picks, chief proponent of eschewing opportunities to pick cheap young players because his team has “enough” “talent” traded for two seconds in a single transaction. And in that same transaction, he traded away a guy he’d later hire to coach his team.
But, I’m not here to go through his full history as a general manager. Have at it if you like. Today, I’m hunting for the “most Grunfeld” player from his era running the Wizards. What players, season-by-season, most embody the team’s fortunes that season? And finally, who will ultimately take home the title of The Quintessential Grunfeld Wizard?
First, let’s look at individual seasons. For this, I took the team’s record and found the player who had a PER that most closely corresponded with the team’s winning percentage. In most cases, I looked for guys who had a reasonable amount of playing time, though I did make a couple exceptions because of fit. You’ll see what I mean.
Here’s what I mean by “PER that most closely corresponded with the team’s winning percentage.” In PER average is 15.0, which corresponds to a .500 record, at least in theory. There are issues with PER, but that’s not the point today. So, if the Wizards went 41-41 in a season, I went looking for a player with significant minutes and something close to a 15.0 PER.
Another example? Let me randomly — and for no reason whatsoever — pick a .438 winning percentage. Huh, by some weird coincidence, that’s the team’s winning percentage under Grunfeld. Anyway, .438 corresponds to a PER of 13.1. And so on.
Let’s take a look.
Best Player: Larry Hughes 17.6 (PER)
Most Grunfeld: Jarvis Hayes 9.4
Fun Facts: Despite being an objectively bad rookie, Hayes played 2044 minutes for the Wizards that season. With that pick, the Wizards could have taken NCAA Player of the Year David West. Or Boris Diaw. Or ACC Player of the Year Josh Howard.
True story: right after the Wizards selected Hayes in 2003, I texted my brother this question, “If you had to pick between two players and all you knew was that one guy was the ACC Player of the Year and the other averaged 18 and 4 as a fourth-year junior at Georgia, who would you take?”
He asked if it was a trick question. Because of course you pick the ACC POY. Of course.
Best Player: Larry Hughes 21.6
Most Grunfeld: Brendan Haywood 16.5
Fun Facts: A big driver of the team’s 20-game improvement was the health of Gilbert Arenas, who was All-NBA for the first time.
Best Player: Gilbert Arenas 23.8
Most Grunfeld: Brendan Haywood 13.8
Fun Facts: Haywood’s PER was closest to the team’s winning percentage. If you don’t want a repeater, next closest was Caron Butler with a 17.0. Arenas was third team All-NBA for a second straight season.
Best Player: Gilbert Arenas 24.0
Most Grunfeld: Antonio Daniels 15.0
Fun Facts: The first half of the season, the Wizards briefly led the Eastern Conference. Eddie Jordan coached the All-Star team. Arenas made second team All-NBA. The season ended badly — losses piled up and then Gerald Wallace fell into Arenas’ knee and wrecked his career.
Best Player: Caron Butler 20.7
Most Grunfeld: Andray Blatche 15.5
Fun Facts: With Arenas out, Butler and Antawn Jamison played better, Antonio Daniels was a savvy veteran at PG, and the Wizards didn’t get worse. Turns out, they were saving up.
Best Player: Antawn Jamison 20.6
Most Grunfeld: DeShawn Stevenson 6.9
Fun Facts: Losing. Lots of losing, even with reasonably good health. Daniels was so unhappy with the team’s juvenile antics that Grunfeld finally traded him and a first round pick for Javaris Crittenton and Mike James. Somehow, with the team this bad, he didn’t blow it up. Somehow, Ted Leonsis and Grunfeld thought they were still close to...something...maybe “contending for the playoffs.”
Best Player: Gilbert Arenas 18.7
Most Grunfeld: Nick Young 10.7
Fun Facts: The prize for that 19-win season was the fifth pick in the draft. Players available included: Ricky Rubio, Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague and several other players who would go on to productive NBA careers. Grunfeld traded it for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. Arenas was back and his presence at the top of the team’s PER leaderboard serves more to highlight problems with PER than to show he played well. The team’s juvenile antics finally couldn’t be contained and Gun Gate happened. Grunfeld finally gave up and traded away veterans.
Best Player: JaVale McGee 17.4
Most Grunfeld: Kevin Seraphin 8.4
Fun Facts: The John Wall Era begins and the team was still terrible. Orlando, for some reason, was willing to take Arenas’ contract.
Best Player: JaVale McGee 19.6
Most Grunfeld: Chris Singleton 8.3
Fun Facts: This was the year of the most destructive draft of Grunfeld’s tenure. Somehow, Grunfeld picked the best PG in franchise history in 2010 and the team got worse in consecutive years.
Best Player: John Wall 20.8
Most Grunfeld: Kevin Seraphin 10.3
Fun Facts: Wall was emerging as a player at this point. Seraphin, despite three years of terrible play, was still deemed part of the team’s youthful core. In 2012-13, he played 1721 minutes.
Best Player: John Wall 19.5
Most Grunfeld: Trevor Ariza 15.8
Fun Facts: Decent team with a decent “Most Grunfeld” winner.
Best Player: John Wall 19.9
Most Grunfeld: Marcin Gortat 18.2
Fun Facts: Kris Humphries missed winning “Most Grunfeld” by 0.06 PER points. Hate to see it.
Best Player: John Wall 19.8
Most Grunfeld: Otto Porter 14.5
Fun Facts: A sullen, sulky, lethargic season — similar to the one that led to Grunfeld’s departure — at the worst possible time. The Wizards had been saving cap space for a run at Kevin Durant, who looked at the mess in Washington and said, “Nah.”
Best Player: John Wall 23.5
Most Grunfeld: Otto Porter 17.3
Fun Facts: The best the Wizards would get under Grunfeld. Wall got third team All-NBA and a supermax contract extension.
Best Player: John Wall 19.1
Most Grunfeld: Tomas Satoransky 15.4
Fun Facts: Wall got hurt and everyone ate, at least until Wall perceived insult from Gortat and crapped all over his teammate. It was a bad look for him, but the playoffs were fun.
Best Player: Thomas Bryant 21.0
Most Grunfeld: Jason Smith 11.7
Fun Facts: Sullen. Lethargic. Passive aggressive. Losing. Wall got hurt again and the team was terrible. Somehow, they clung to the delusion they could still reach the playoffs so they traded Kelly Oubre for a washed up Ariza and then Porter for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker. Shockingly, the team didn’t improve.
If you want to quibble with Smith winning “Most Grunfeld” because he played just 130 minutes, okay (but remember he was in the third season of a three-year contract Grunfeld gave him...as a career replacement level performer). Next pick would be Ian Mahinmi or Troy Brown. Mahinmi would be a good choice given his status as a classic Grunfeld free agent “prize.” Brown was the team’s first round pick who languished on the bench in a lost season.
For the heck of it, here’s the best I could do to construct an actual lineup from this motley group. Call it All-Most Grunfeld:
PG — Tomas Satoransky, Antonio Daniels, Troy Brown
SG — Nick Young, Jarvis Hayes, Nick Young
SF — Otto Porter, Caron Butler, Trevor Ariza
PF — Andray Blatche, Kris Humphries, Chris Singleton
C — Marcin Gortat, Brendan Haywood, Kevin Seraphin
Seems like a group well-suited to win 35-36 games and convince itself that winning four of their last six to take 9th in the East was an accomplishment.
Finally, we get to the moment you’ve been waiting for. Who wins the coveted title The Quintessential Grunfeld Wizard?
The team’s winning percentage during his 16 seasons in charge was .438, which translates to a PER of 13.1. So, we need to find a player close to that level.
In that range from the season-by-season list is Haywood. But, it doesn’t seem right to award the coveted title to a guy who got close just once. To honor Grunfeld’s time at the helm, we need someone who had a significant role and came reasonably close to the team’s level of play. We need someone who embodies the arrogant almost-competent frustrating failure of the Grunfeld era.
- Antonio Daniels, Wizards PER: 13.9, Wizards minutes: 6493 — Decent at times but became miserable because of the horrific culture Grunfeld enabled. Wizards coaches and front office people I talked with at the time constantly praised Daniels as the team’s best defender. I was tracking the team’s defense and he rated as their worst.
- Mike Miller, 13.9, 1805
- Randy Foye, 13.2, 1667 — Miller and Foye were in DC for just one season. Brought in to give the team depth for what Grunfeld thought would be a deep playoffs run, they were not good and the team bombed. Both departed in free agency after the season.
- Tomas Satoransky, 13.7, 4526 — Competent player who didn’t fit how the coach liked to play
- Jeff Green, 13.6, 2097 — Green was a pretty average player for a bunch of years and it was inevitable he’d get to Washington at some point. He was okay for awhile, but once the season was lost he stopped playing defense. Inexplicably, Grunfeld didn’t trade him for something at the deadline.
- Markieff Morris, 13.4, 5937 — Morris was thoroughly mediocre and a master of being faux tough, usually in ways that weren’t helpful to the team. The theory of Morris was better than his game.
And the winner of The Quintessential Grunfeld Wizard: Markieff Morris. Grunfeld paid a first round pick to acquire Morris in a deadline deal and he was what he’d been before — not good, not bad, just kinda okay some of the time.
Morris wasn’t particularly good at anything...or bad either. He filled space, used more possessions than he should have, and acted — but didn’t play — tough.
To me, Morris checks the right boxes. They overpaid to get him, but not by a lot. They overvalued him once he was on the team and gave him a role bigger than his playing ability merited. He talked a good game and play-acted the toughness thing, but didn’t do the dirty work (defense, rebounding, physical screens, chasing down loose balls) that actual tough players do.
So that’s my pick. I’ll listen to arguments for other guys in the comments or on Twitter @broom_kevin.