I haven’t been writing much about the Wizards, but I’ve been thinking about them a lot, and this moment of euphoria following last nights series clinching win in Chicago seems as good as any to share them. Though a small step, this playoff series win should add some fresh perspective to some of the more maligned members of this organization.
- THE ARCHITECT: There was a time when “In Ernie I Trust” was actually a phrase I heard more than once, but these days he’s seen as the number one reason fans are hesitant to embrace the team. To be sure, if you judge by things like winning percentage (What?! Crazy talk!!) the Grunfeld-era in DC has been far from successful. However, if I could, I’d like to offer a mild defense of the Wizards GM.
- For one, it hasn’t been all futility for the last decade, plus. In fact, Grunfeld has built two of the three playoff series-winning teams that the district has seen in the last 33 years; this is another way of saying it’s not like this was a glorious franchise that has gone to pot under his watch. The turning point – which will be a reoccurring theme in this mild defense – was Gun-gate. Before that moment Grunfeld was largely seen as a successful GM (the Milwaukee Bucks – THE BUCKS!!! – won 14 playoff games in four years with Ernie in charge!) who was turning the Wizards franchise around. Afterwards he was largely seen as an incompetent enabler. How you see this depends largely on who you hold responsible for Gun-gate.
- In the aftermath of Gun-gate, Grunfeld has gotten a lot of heat for not building an environment conducive to winning and for enabling the worst behavior of his best players. There is certainly something to be said for organizational control, but I feel like it’s a stretch to hold the GM responsible for Gilbert Arenas becoming/being a lunatic. To paraphrase one of my favorite movie quotes, society at-large is not on trial here, YOU are Agent Zero. I often think that the damage done by Gilbert’s varying levels of insanity, Caron Butler’s veer into hero ball, and the perpetual recess of Swaggy P and Pierre clouds our hindsight of just how exciting and really, really good that first playoff team that Ernie built was. Before Arenas’ knee injury (another pivotal moment) they were widely considered one of the top 5-6 teams in the league and, in combination with the Steve Nash-led Suns, had people seriously wondering if a high-powered offense-first team could win a championship. Then came the injury, Gilbert’s insistence on rehabbing himself, Gun-gate and the crumbling that followed. Does the GM bear some responsibility for this? Of course, but I’d argue that the vast majority of the blame has to fall at the on- and off-court failures of the best players on that team.
- There are two things that Grunfeld has proven to be really good at: following the desires of his boss, the team’s owner and undoing his mistakes. The widely panned trade of the eventual Ricky Rubio pick for Mike Miller and Randy Foye, if my understanding is correct, was the direct result of an ailing Abe Pollian’s wishes to go all in and pursue a championship run. Could you argue that Ernie should have counseled his boss that such a move wasn’t prudent? Sure, though for all we know he did that. But, when your boss says go all in, what are you going to do? Stand on principle and quit? How many of us would have done that? Or do you nod your head and do your best to make it happen? Ultimately it didn’t work out and we can debate what other moves he could have/should have made – like I said this is a mild defense and he’s certainly made mistakes – but I think it’s important to recognize the larger context. Similarly, the horrible records of the first few years of Ted Leonsis’ ownership have been the direct result of the owner’s edict. Leonsis recognized, quite correctly I think, that to turn a bad NBA team into a good one under today’s rules, you have to blow that sucker up. Mediocrity is the kiss of death in this league. So Ernie blew it up, the team suffered through some dismal years, but the return was one of, if not THE, best young backcourt in the league. Was it hard to watch for a while? Yep. Was it worth it. Well, it’s trending that way.
- On the undoing of mistakes, trading Kwame Brown (not his mistake!) for Caron Butler and eventually, meanderingly, turning the “untradeable” Gilbert Arenas into the equally “untradeable” Rashard Lewis into Trevor Ariza (traded with Emeka Okafor for Lewis) and Marcin Gortat (traded for Okafor and the Wizards first round pick this year – wait, the Wizards also got Shannon Brown, Kendall Marshall and Malcolm Lee in that trade??? I did NOT remember that…) really should net Ernie a few brownie points. Oh, and JaVale McGee was traded for some Brazilian priest, goes by “Nene”. Does Grunfeld make mistakes? Absolutely. Does he sit on his hands and say, “Oh well,” when he does? Absolutely not, the man goes to work.
Am I trying to say that Ernie Grunfeld is a great GM? No, that would be absurd. There are significant questions that can be asked about player development, management of injuries, and how much faith he puts into questionable personalities doing the right thing. However, is he a competent, hard working GM who might deserve a little respect for what he’s done with some rather absurd and bizarre circumstances, even if some of those were of his making? I think it’s time for the Wizards fan base to take a deep breath and say, “Maybe.” Hey, I said it was a mild defense…
- THE TEACHER IS THE STUDENT: Until very recently Randy Wittman has been seen as a poor coach, a two time loser inexplicably given another chance by a sad sack organization. And, without doubt, he was the head coach of some very poor teams in his first two opportunities as an NBA head coach. But, it has to be said that, upon taking over the Wizards after Flip Saunders was let go, the team almost immediately began to change identity. Or, to put it another way, began to have an identity. Over the last two and a half years, they have morphed into a scrappy, defense-first team that has proven that, when right, they can beat anybody. There have been bouts of inconstancy, yes, though I’d argue that some of that has to do with youth and injuries, but there has also been a lot of resilience. There were several points this season where it looked like the team could start a death spiral in the standings, including some really disappointing losses to bad teams, but each time they have rebounded and continued pushing towards their goals. I think this is partially attributable to a coach who has learned from his mistakes and gotten better. Right now, Randy Wittman is coaching with a confidence and curmudgeonliness that is just a little, itsy-bitsy, teensy-weensy bit Popovich-ian. No, I’m not saying he is, or will be, on that level of Hall of Fame coach, but maybe it’s time to release him from the shackles of his failures in Cleveland and Minnesota (two franchises who’s dysfunction make the Wizards look positively Spurs-ian. OK, I’ll stop now.).
- YES, MR. BAYLESS, HE’S A REAL POINT GUARD: No, he’s not much maligned now, but it wasn’t just the Skip Bayless’s of the world who questioned John Wall when he came into the league. Given the ruin left behind by the last star point guard and the awfulness of the last overall #1 pick by the franchise, it was absolutely understandable that even Wizards die-hards were hesitant to embrace Wall when he was drafted. But, I never understood why the concerns seemed to be that he was an all-flash, no-fundementals scoring guard. The only witness to this is my wife, but if you asked her she would tell you that, from the beginning, I thought Wall was in the mold of a tough, physical, pass-first point guard, a guy who looked to make others better and would strive to better himself. There was certainly no guarantee he would pan out, but in so many ways he was/is the anti-Arenas. In fact, in a lot of ways, he’s a throwback, a cool, tough guy, who really, really, really wants to be the best. The improvements he’s made in his jump shot, the dedication to overcoming injuries and the leadership he’s exhibited at a young age seem to validate this. It’s really good to see the DC fans buying in and the NBA world at-large appreciating how good he is and can become. With any luck at all he’s here and successful for a long, long time. So suck it, Bayless.
- THAT NAME: I acknowledge that I’m a transplant fan who doesn’t have the history of the Bullets to fall back on, but I have never understood the hatred for “Wizards” as a team name. I love the alliteration, I love the allusion to “The Wizards of Westwood” and, honestly, I love the logo – I’d totally take Gandalf in a pick-up game. Sure, “Washington Bullets” sounded cool, though, let’s be honest, “Baltimore Bullets” was even better (or maybe I’m just a sucker for alliteration), but, given Abe Pollian’s reasons for changing the name, I feel like this is another one where the Wizards fan base can take that deep breath and say, “Eh, it’s not that bad.”
- THINKING BIG: Most of the time I’ve counted myself as a Wizards fan, yes, they’ve been pretty bad. And, yes, that can be wearing on those that love the team and it’s really easy to get cynical as a defense mechanism. But, I am here to tell you that it’s ok to hope and it’s all right to dream. I could tell you a story about a football team in New Orleans that was considered even worse, but you’ve heard me tell that story before. There is no guarantee that this, or any, Wizards team will hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. But, right now, there are people say, “Why not us, why not now,” and #dcRising is all over Twitter, with nary a #SoWizards to be found. Headlines like this are being written. It feels good, doesn’t it? There is hope in the air, even is spring refuses to be, and I say let’s dream. Let’s dream big. Let’s dream of a second round romp. Let’s dream of Trevor Ariza doing hookah things to LeBron and Wall and Beal laying waste to the Miami backcourt. Let’s dream of whoever slogs through the West being too spent to stop a speeding juggernaut and let’s dream of how insufferable we’d love Uncle Ted to be standing next to Adam Silver as confetti falls from the ceiling.
And, whether or not that happens, let me throw this out there. What if the Thunder are bounced by the Grizzlies in the first round? What if a certain star forward grows restless with a pirated franchise that seems to value pennies over trophies? What if the rumors of tension with a point guard who wants to be the man are as true as they sound? And what if that forward starts to look towards the East, where the playoff path isn’t as clogged, where there is a dynamic and unselfish backcourt flourishing under a no-nonsense coach? A backcourt that just happens to play in the city he was born in. Kevin Durant only has two years left on his contract after this season and could be an unrestricted free agent at age 27. Currently the Washington Wizards are only committed to $15 million for the 2016/17 season. And I can’t think of a team and a player that would match up better. Would you want to built a team around John Wall, Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant? Let’s dream. Let’s dream big. Let’s start beating that drum.