For a while there, it looked like the Washington Wizards may have had a shot at making the Eastern Conference Finals. But, it was not to be. This season, for Washington, ended short of the proposed goal of every franchise: a championship; but here in the Nation’s Capital, we’re still celebrating.
On paper, the 2013-2014 campaign was the Wiz’s best in over 30 years. They advanced to the second round of the playoffs and took two games off the top-seeded Pacers. But now that the year has come to an end, it’s important that the team begins to look at itself critically before patting itself on the back.
Ernie Grunfeld, who has been calling the shots as the Wizards general manager since 2003, has made more than a few blunders, definitively missing on every draft pick except those in 2010 (John Wall) and 2012 (Beal), both picks that were obvious decisions to basketball executives and teenaged fans alike. Grunfeld is responsible for passing on players such as Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and Klay Thompson while drafting Jan Vesely and trading picks for players like Mike Miller and Randy Foye. Grunfeld paid offensively high amounts of money to Gilbert Arenas and Andray Blatche, neither of whom managed to contribute after being given their money. Blatche was amnestied in 2012, and is now collecting dust on the Nets’ bench, while the retired Arenas is still cashing checks from his 2008 deal.
Recently, Grunfeld has made “successful” moves, resulting in a one year contract extension. Both Beal and Wall have started to develop into top-level guards. A trade that flipped Emeka Okafor for Marcin Gortat has paid off, as Gortat became one of the most potent offensive options for Washington this year. Less recent acquisitions, Trevor Ariza and Nene, elevated their play during the late regular season and playoffs. Nene, in dominating Joakim Noah on both ends of the floor, was largely responsible for the Wizards’ first round victory over the Bulls.
However, Nene was plagued by injury for much of the year, playing only 53 games and starting in 37, and struggled to be productive. The forward is on the Wizards’ books for $13 million for the next two years, during which it is likely that his production will stall. Gortat, though productive, has a contract that expires this offseason. To keep the Polish Hammer on the roster, the Wizards will need to pay a high price. The same goes for Ariza, whose strong shooting late in the season will attract a number of suitors. Keeping these matters in mind, Grunfeld has not built a contender, but has duct taped together a team that will only be able to maintain its level of play if its veterans continue to play at their current level. Additionally, to keep Gortat and Ariza, the Wizards will need to pay a high premium, which will make it difficult to sign the high profile free agent that is likely necessary to turn the team from a fifth seed into a championship contender. Keeping this in mind, Grunfeld has not made the team successful, but rather, has just done enough to keep his job.
Similarly, Randy Wittman, the Wizards coach, has done enough to stay on board, but is holding the Wiz back from becoming a true top team. Wittman’s lack of in-game adjustments and strange lineup decisions cost the Wizards games down the stretch, especially during the Pacers series. With proven commodities like George Karl on the market, a simple step toward a more efficient Wizards team would be to move to a more experienced coach. Many teams will not tolerate a lack of success. Mark Jackson, the coach of the Golden State Warriors, was fired despite leading his team to multiple playoff berths. However, Wittman, like Grunfeld, will be allowed to stick around because of this more-successful-than-usual season.
The problem with basketball in Washington is that the big picture is overlooked. Temporary breaks from mediocrity are rewarded with contract extensions. As long as the upper management of the organization is unwilling to do what is necessary to win a title, or unaware of the misguided nature of their ways, this team will continue on their current path: bouncing between the middle of the pack and the bottom of the League.
A simple way to improve: fire Grunfeld, whose bad decision-making and epically poor drafting history has kept the team grounded for over a decade, fire Wittman, who simply is not a top tier coach, and don’t bite on all of the players in their thirties that play well before going into contract years. If the Wizards decide to make a push at a championship, maybe, just maybe, they’ll find one.
Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr