Excuse the pun in the title. When you see the other titles I was debating between – The Grun-fled Era, To m(m)y Relief, and Y(Ernie)ing for Success – it becomes clear why I chose this one. It has been over a year since Ernie Grunfeld was relieved of his duties as general manager of the Washington Wizards. After a turbulent run that lasted just over a decade and a half, moving on from Grunfeld was cause for universal celebration amongst Wizards fans. While it’s easy to denounce the man who went 568-724 (win percentage of 44), failed to make it out of the conference semis, and made some mind-numbingly bizarre trades, I concede, grudgingly, that he did have some positive moments with the franchise.
Grunfeld was with the organization for longer than most at his position make it, so I won’t nit-pick every move he made, but here are some respectable moments. Washington was one game, and a Kelly Olynyk breakout game seven, away from advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017. Despite a lack of postseason success, the Wizards were a competitive team in the East for at least part of Grunfeld’s tenure as GM and he drafted franchise cornerstones Bradley Beal and John Wall.
Going back even further, he signed both Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, both of whom were productive all-stars for the team in the early 2000s. But as is the case with every GM, Grunfeld had his fair share of misses, most notably selecting Jan Vesely – who played three seasons in the league, averaging 3.6 points per game – with the sixth overall pick in 2011. Not only did Grunfeld make some questionable draft decisions, he has also overpaid several players.
In 2016, he gave Ian Mahinmi four-year, $64-million dollar contract. Mahinmi has averaged 5.5 points per game for the Wizards over the course of those four years. A year later, he matched the Brooklyn Nets’ four-year, $106-million offer for Porter Jr. The former Georgetown man was a consistent third-option in the Wizards’ rotation, but some questioned whether he was worth that much. That same summer, Grunfeld locked up Wall with a four-year, $170-million max contract. At the time, despite Wall’s success, this was a sizeable amount of money to throw at a player who had struggled with injuries in the past. The last dubious free agent signing that comes to mind was the $11-million spent to bring in Dwight Howard, who never meshed with the team, and played a grand total of nine games due to a butt-related injury.
While it is easy for me to criticize Grunfeld’s decisions, there was a level of bad luck for some of these moves. Nobody could have predicted Wall would rupture his Achilles’ tendon the season before his supermax was set to kick-in, Brooklyn would force Grunfeld’s hand by offering Porter Jr. the max, and that the team culture wouldn’t be right for Howard to succeed (just look at his development with the Lakers this year). While these moves are more excusable, kind of, what stands out as maybe the most painful Grunfeld gaffe was the Kelly Oubre trade.
On December 17, 2018, Grunfeld decided to send the 23-year-old and Austin Rivers to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for an aging Trevor Ariza. At the time of the trade, the Wizards were 12-18 on the season. This move was a classic, "GM who has been pressured by the organization, trying to save his job, flips a young prospect for an ‘impact’ veteran to help make a playoff push." Through 29 games that season, Oubre averaged 12.9 points and shot 53-percent from two. He was a young prospect with plenty of upside, but Grunfeld opted for the veteran Ariza.
This trade never made sense. The Wizards were trending downward and a trip to the postseason was looking increasingly unlikely, so why trade a player with plenty of room to grow and a high ceiling in Oubre for a past-his-prime Ariza who was set to become a free agent at the end of the season? Because the Wizards were going to make a charge for the postseason and Ariza’s three-point shooting and perimeter defense would be invaluable down the stretch of course! Well…the team finished 32-50 and missed the playoffs, Ariza walked in free agency and Oubre blossomed into a star for Phoenix this past season, averaging 18.7 points, 1.3 steals, 1.5 assists with an effective field goal percentage of .515 (all career highs).
When it became clear that Grunfeld’s days with the organization were numbered, he shipped out most of the players who contributed to the playoff runs in the 2010s. He traded Otto Porter to the Bulls for Jabari Parker, Bobby Portis, and a 2023 second round pick, then sent Markieff Morris, cash, and a 2023 second round pick to the Pelicans for Wesley Johnson. None of the players he traded for are still on the roster, but this was more to get rid of bloated contracts than anything.
Once Grunfeld was relieved of his duties, Tommy Sheppard stepped in for the rest of the season, and was later named GM in the summer of 2019. In his first year as general manager, Sheppard has navigated the complexities of an organization that was left in disrepair. Despite inheriting a team deprived of a long-term vision and second round picks, Sheppard has done admirably in year one. Let’s not forget, when congratulating Sheppard’s methodical approach, that he was a part of the Grunfeld error. That being said, he has shown poise in building the team through the draft, making low risk signings trades, and bringing a level of transparency and direction to the organization.
Let’s start with the draft. With the ninth overall pick in 2019, Sheppard selected forward Rui Hachimura out of Gonzaga. There were rumors on draft night that the Wizards hadn’t even spoken to Hachimura, and he was seen as a player who didn’t have as much room to grow due to his age (21 when he was drafted). While his defense needs work, and he must become more than just a mid-range shooter, Hachimura’s rookie season brought plenty of promise. He has an extremely high basketball IQ and averaged 13.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.7 assists while shooting 52-percent from two. Despite being 21, he made strides forward this season, a trend the Wizards and their fans alike will hope continues.
The second area I want to look at when it comes to Sheppard’s shrewd front office management is his ability to sign or trade for "low-risk, high-reward" players. He sent Howard to the Grizzlies for guard C.J. Miles, who was unfortunate to miss a significant amount of time due to injury, which removed a player who wasn’t a great fit in the locker room. He then acquired Davis Bertans – who became one of the top three-point shooters in the league this season – as part of a three-team trade, and all it cost was…Aaron White.
But that wasn’t the only three-team trade Sheppard engaged in. In the move that helped the Lakers land Anthony Davis, the Wizards sent cash to the Pelicans in exchange for Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones, Mo Wagner, and a 2022 second round pick – an impressive haul. Sheppard brought in three young players for a small price, and both Bonga and Wagner look like they could be contributing pieces moving forward
The last trade Sheppard made was acquiring a second round pick in 2020 and 2022 from the Bulls in exchange for Tomáš Satoransky, further amassing draft capital. These acquisitions are examples of the new GM making prudent trades to build for the future. Sheppard also re-signed Thomas Bryant and added Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas on affordable deals. The transactions in the offseason gave the team a potential reward – in the case of Bertans, Bonga, and Wagner – and mitigated the "risk" moves – Thomas – that didn’t pan out.
The moves made last summer were also utilized during the season to acquire prospects. At the trade deadline, the Wizards sent 2018 second round pick Issuf Sanon to the Knicks, and dealt Thomas to the Clippers, in exchange for 2018 lottery pick Jerome Robinson. Trading a second round pick and a player on a minimum contract for Robinson, who was never given a chance to shine in the Clipper’s rotation, is a huge win. It didn’t cost the Wizards much to bring him in, and if he capitalizes on the potential that made him a lottery pick, Robinson could be a massive steal for D.C.
Arguably the most important area of development for the Wizards under the guidance of Sheppard has been the level of transparency the organization now operates with. Make no mistake, at the end of the day, the NBA is a business, but that doesn’t diminish the connections and relationships that are forged between the players and their organizations. We often see players pledge their loyalty to their teams (DeMar DeRozan), only to be heartlessly cast away for a player who will be able to better "help the team." These moves are frequently followed by the perfunctory statement thanking the player for their dedication and contribution to the franchise.
As a team that is evolving methodically and carefully, the Wizards had every opportunity to trade both Beal and Bertans this season to accelerate their rebuild. Both players had breakout seasons and were heavily coveted in the trade market. Sheppard has stated emphatically throughout the season that the organization does not want to trade either player, and that’s the position they have maintained; Beal and Bertans are both still on the roster. The Wizards rejected offers for their top-two scorers this past season and have been adamant that they want to keep Beal long-term and re-sign Bertans this offseason. The fact that Sheppard maintains this level of consistency and transparency is calming for those around the organization. If the GM says he won’t trade a player, there is confidence that a trade won’t in fact happen. This level of clarity also builds trust and goodwill with the fanbase.
Despite an underwhelming 24-40 record when the season was shuttered in March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, coupled with a shot at the postseason seemingly even less likely without Beal and Bertans (both of whom have opted out of the NBA restart), Wizards fans have plenty to look forward to, and that starts with the front office. After years of disfunction and a lack of faith in those running the team, Tommy Sheppard has shown in his first year that he epitomizes diligence, patience, and practicality, all of which should assuage any worries Wizards fans have going forward.