After 16 years, the Wizards finally fired Ernie Grunfeld. Grunfeld spent his playing career with the Bucks, Knicks and Kings. In the Wizards front office, he drafted John Wall and Bradley Beal. He also drafted Jan Vessly, overpaid Otto Porter, and incentivized a lack of creativity. The Wizards have never had an identity other than let John Wall and Bradley Beal do things. They are hampered by a lackluster fanbase- only 85% of the seats are filled- and an ignorance on how to build a team given the current max salary excesses.
Wall and Beal have earned their salaries. Otto Porter had not, particularly considering how the Wizards were using him as an afterthought. Paying Porter the max restricted the Wizards and ruined their flexibility. They had to do more with less. And their two stars, despite how Bradley Beal thinks of himself, have flaws.
Wall cannot make shots on a consistent basis and he falls into ball hog mode late into games. Beal can’t carry a team despite his scoring talent. His scoring talent is too specific. He’s a catch and shoot player who finishes at the rim but can’t deliver on other areas of the floor and his defense is textbook average.
The Wizards under Grunfeld were built not to win it all but to make the playoffs, tease the few fans they have, and then talk about next year.
But something happened on the road to playoff mediocrity. The team that went to the Eastern Conference semis is in the lottery. Grunfeld took the fall and it was more of a last straw kind of deal. He’s not the reason Wall ripped his Achilles. But he built a team that couldn’t survive without him.
John Wall isn’t just injured. He’s probably out for next season. Which means another season like this with Bradley Beal doing his best imitation of James Harden, though not as effective. Beal doesn’t have the kind of talent to drop (9) 50 point games. So the Wizards will be in the lottery again next season with zero flexibility because when Wall does return in 2020-21, he will be paid $40 million and his sidekick Beal will be paid $28 million.
The hardest thing to do is to find a superstar. The next hardest thing is to find role players that fit with the stars and create enough chemistry. Wall is mercurial and aloof and isn’t much of a leader. Beal has more leadership intangibles but you can’t build a team around his talent. He can’t be the best player on a team. His game isn’t that extraordinary. So it leaves Washington in the same place other teams are in. Good enough to win games. But not good enough for consistency.
In NBA lingo, that is hell. It kickstarts rebuilding.
Rebuilding isn’t inherently evil. You get to develop players, something Scott Brooks has done with James Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That was magic in a bottle though.
In 2007, the number two pick. In 2008, the number four pick. In 2009, the number three pick. One year later, they were in the playoffs. Two years later they were in the Finals. It has never been that easy and you can’t try to recreate something that will probably never occur again. But rebuilding does deliver Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis and Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving.
For the past few years, the Wizards have been that hamster on a wheel going around and around in circles. But never achieving anything. In Grunfeld’s 16 seasons, they made the playoffs eight times, lost in the first round four times, and never made it to a conference final. He had to pay the price. This was the team he built and he lasted much longer than he should have.
Now the Wizards can think outside the box and get a vision. They already have talent. Next up is an identity.