In their game one victory over the higher-seeded Chicago Bulls last night, the Wizards got strong contributions from a few key veterans not generally considered to be among their long-term foundation. That foundation - John Wall and Bradley Beal - in their first ever taste of playoff basketball, struggled to make shots against a formidable Chicago defense. This was expected: Wall and Beal tend to run hot and cold anyway, and the added intensity of the playoffs plus the design of the Bulls defense and the tenacity of their playoff-tested veteran roster all suggested that Wizards fans should temper any expectations for this first game, or even the series. And so it was no surprise when the two young players mostly spent the evening firing off bricks left and right.
Impressive contributions from playoff veterans Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, and Andre Miller, spot duty from plug-ins Drew Gooden, Al Harrington, and Martell Webster, and a brilliant, heroic performance from Nene more than made up for the foundation's growing pains, and in the post-victory glow, it would be easy to credit and congratulate Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld for assembling a supporting cast of tough, savvy, reliable veterans among whom Wall and Beal can endure necessary growing pains without dooming the team to a quick first-round exit. Of course, it is the duty of the long-suffering Wizards fan to note with bittersweet resignation that this roster, whatever its strengths, was built more by Grunfeld's failures and desperation than with any credible plan for sustainable success.
Let's go player by player, shall we?
John Wall was acquired with the first overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft. He was the consensus best player in the draft, and it goes without saying the Wizards had to be pretty bad to wind up with the number one overall pick in the first place, finishing the 2009/2010 season 26-56 two years after their last playoff appearance. The team's rapid demise began immediately after their 2008 first round loss to the Cavaliers. By 2010 the team was in the market for a new point guard after Grunfeld rewarded Gilbert Arenas, apparently for having a pair of really ominous knee surgeries, with what will go down as one of the worst contracts in NBA history (6 years, $111 million).
That the team went into a spiral after the 2007/2008 season should not have surprised anyone paying attention. The Eastern Conference was (and is) awful, and the Wizards were a desperately top-heavy team with an inflated record. They were built around the contributions of Arenas, a sublime scorer who was nonetheless a terminal head-case who played no defense whatsoever; Antawn Jamison, a total fraud of an NBA player who is constitutionally incapable of taking good shots and also played no defense whatsoever; Caron Butler, a trumped-up roll player hilariously miscast as a central figure on a non-lottery team; and goofy swaggering hangers-on like DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood. They played a quintessentially pre-analytics brand of NBA basketball - isolations and post-ups and mid-range jumpers - laughably and self-consciously described as "the Princeton offense", that relied to a downright stunning degree upon the brazen, reckless shot-making of any two of their quote-unquote Big Three.
So, Arenas never recovered from the knee injury he sustained before signing his hundred-million dollar contract, and the Wizards won 45 games combined over the two seasons immediately preceding their selection, with the first overall pick, of franchise savior John Wall. Big woop. No General Manager deserves credit for taking the best player with the first pick.
Bradley Beal was acquired with the third overall pick in the 2012 draft after a 20-win season highlighted by the forwarding of the notion that Nick Young, JaVale McGee, and Andray Blatche were somehow cornerstones of something other than a particularly bleak satirical YouTube representation of NBA stereotypes. They'd won a dismal 43 games over the two seasons since drafting John Wall, and had spent the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft on Jan Vesely. They'd also seen Grunfeld's hysterical extension of Andray Blatche - to the tune of 5 years and $35 million - blow up in their faces, as he spent the back half of the 2011/2012 season getting relentlessly booed by the home crowd and benched for being out of shape and lazy and almost, almost too stupid for words.
Beal was a consensus top five player in a solid draft, and the only possible credit Grunfeld gets for this pick is that he didn't somehow screw it up.
Trevor Ariza was acquired via trade before the 2012/2013 season. Back in the 2010/2011 season, Grunfeld's Wizards were still stuck with Gilbert Arenas's disgraceful contract and the threat of him poisoning rookie John Wall was very real. Casting about for any hope of relief, Grunfeld tapped hopelessly overmatched Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith and flipped Gilbert Arenas's 6-year, $111 million contract for Rashard Lewis's...6-year, $118 million contract. Agent Zero, once Grunfeld's handpicked face of the franchise, was such a toxic, unusable asset that Grunfeld was willing to pay more than a million dollars more per season for an already washed-up Rashard Lewis just to offload him. This trade moved the worst contract in league history for the second worst contract in league history, making it the most depressing blockbuster trade in league history.
The following summer NBA owners locked out the players, and the 2011/2012 season was chopped down to 66 games. Out of this lockout, owners emerged with the Amnesty Clause, which allowed teams to erase one bad contract from their books, so long as that contract was already on their books at the time the CBA was signed, and with the caveat that the player whose contract was amnestied would still be paid the value of the contract, but off the books. Under any other circumstances, Rashard Lewis would have been an ideal...no, the ideal candidate for amnesty. But in Washington, the Wizards had just spent half a season quite literally hiding a comically fat and overpaid Andray Blatche on the bench, if for no better reason than an arena full of home fans lustily booing one of their own players is embarrassing and terrible for morale. With zero trade market for a then-25-year-old big man who was apparently talented enough to be drafted directly out of high school, and no forgivable way of keeping him on the roster, Grunfeld decided to amnesty Blatche and find a trade destination for Rashard Lewis.
If you're counting, Grunfeld amnestied a $7 million/year contract with a $19 million/year contract still on the books.
That of course still left the problem of what to do with Rashard Lewis, who then had 2 seasons left on his own abomination of a contract. Luckily, elsewhere in the NBA, the New Orleans Hornets were eager to offload two terrible contracts of their own: Emeka Okafor (6 years, $72 million) and Trevor Ariza (5 years, $33 million). The Hornets were a lousy 21-win team in need of roster flexibility, but Lewis's contract was such an affront to sanity that Grunfeld was forced to send a draft pick to New Orleans to close the deal.
Trevor Ariza has been a productive, professional member of the Wizards for two whole seasons now, and he'll earn a solid contract as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. But he was acquired in a miserable, desperate salary dump from a shitty team that won a whopping 32% of their games with him in the rotation the prior season.
Nene is a wonderful basketball player. He's one of the very best pick-and-roll defenders in the entire NBA, he's a dependable jump-shooter, and after Joakim Noah he is probably the best passing big man in basketball. He's also being paid an ungodly $13 million a season on an extension that was so immediately regretted by the Denver Nuggets that they traded him away for (I'm not kidding) JaVale McGee one season after the contract was signed. Did you know Nene has played 82 games just once in his 12-year career? I'm not sure Grunfeld knew this, either.
That Grunfeld emerged from the hasty dumping of McGee, one of the NBA's all-time clowns, with a player of Nene's caliber is both miraculous and also a double-edged sword. He's paid Nene $13 million a season for two years of terrific play limited constantly by injuries and minutes restrictions. I haven't worked it out to the third decimal yet, but by my preliminary calculations Nene is being paid approximately $1 jillion per minute of healthy basketball. Make no mistake about it, the Nuggets were three times as eager to offload Nene's contract and rapidly deteriorating body as they were to acquire McGee.
Marcin Gortat came to the Wizards this summer after Emeka Okafor suffered a season- (and possibly career-) ending injury just weeks before the start of the regular season. First of all, Emeka Okafor was a dependable defender and rebounder with a serviceable offensive game, and he was a genuine asset to the Wizards last season. With that out of the way, no team should be in an emergency situation when they lose the guy. Thankfully, the Wizards had stashed an intriguing group of young bigs on their bench, faithfully and determinedly developing them into future rotation players and complementary starters.
Man, that's total bullshit. Grunfeld's Wizards don't ever have a plan for anything. Whatever development steps had been undertaken with Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, and Chris Singleton (all first round draft picks), they'd yielded two genuine head cases (Vesely and Singleton), a helpless malfunctioning basketball robot (Kevin Seraphin) and a scrappy fringe rotation player without the requisite height to be anything more troublesome than a traffic cone on the defensive end. After "developing" these young players for a few seasons, Grunfeld's Wizards were in such a desperate state after Okafor's injury they had to spend a first round draft pick (the NBA's most valuable currency) on Gortat, a journeyman center with one measly year left under contract before unrestricted free agency. This, of course, was another panic move. A first round draft pick to rent The Polish Hammer for a season, with the right to bid to overpay him this summer just like everyone else.
Andre Miller was acquired in February after being exiled in Denver for more or less refusing to, you know, play basketball for Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw. He's 97 years old, he's slow enough on the court that he would actually get a speed boost from using a walker, and, well, he'd been sitting on his butt for most of the season after, umm, refusing to play basketball. Grunfeld's Wizards needed him, and bad, because the team was desperately lacking any credible backup point guard. Which is funny in the sad way you laugh when it's that or cry your eyes out, because the team's number one priority in free agency prior to the season was acquiring a credible backup point guard. What Grunfeld gave them, instead, was Eric Maynor, and I'm not kidding at all when I say Maynor is one of the worst players you will ever see in an NBA game. Nevermind, Grunfeld liked him enough that, on the first day of free agency, he offered Maynor a $4 million deal. The list of free agent guards who eventually signed for less money elsewhere who were still available as that contract was inked is incredible: C.J. Watson, Darren Collison, Patty Mills, Shaun Livingston, Devin Harris, and Beno Udrih are just a few of the highlights. Each of those players is currently playing meaningful minutes in the playoffs.
It took two draft picks to get the Philadelphia 76ers to take Eric Maynor off Grunfeld's hands, and they cut him. The Philadelphia 76ers.
In order to land Andre Miller mid-season, Grunfeld had to ship Jan Vesely to Denver. Vesely, who is 7 feet tall and athletic and was once the sixth pick in the draft. Andre Miller fought in the War of 1812. That he has played well does not excuse the fact that this was yet another panic move that cost future assets to complete.
Drew Gooden was another mid-season acquisition. When it became all too clear the team had nothing in Kevin Seraphin, they called up Gooden, who was sitting around in street clothes doing nothing. He was a good enough basketball player that literally no team had any interest in him for 60+ games of an NBA season, but on the Wizards he was, for a meaningful stretch of the late season, their fourth best player. It is neither a compliment to him nor a credit to the organization to say that, in truth, they would not be in the playoffs had they not signed Drew Gooden. Drew Gooden. Who was out of the league because he is bad.
Al Harrington was signed from the scrap heap prior to the season after a knee injury made him useless to the hopeless Orlando Magic and nearly ended his career. He was signed after Grunfeld failed to acquire a stretch power forward from among the list of actual current NBA players, and promptly missed 40+ games with, yeah, a knee injury. Cheddah can still do a thing or two in an NBA game, but it should go without saying that competent organizations don't go shopping for legitimate needs among players with desperately uncertain futures.
Martell Webster came to Washington prior to last season after his career was threatened by a back injury. He had a solid season playing as a starter alongside the ascending John Wall and then-rookie Bradley Beal and was rewarded with the full midlevel exception during the offseason. His chemistry with the starters, so apparent during the strong finish to the 2012/2013 season, was acknowledged finally when the team followed up on his new contract by...sticking him on the bench. Where he has looked absolutely nothing like a player worth $5.5 million a season.
That's every player who played significant minutes in Game One of the Wizards/Bulls series, but in case you aren't yet convinced that Grunfeld is the worst GM in basketball, consider that, as GM of the Bucks, he once traded 27-year-old Ray Allen plus a draft pick to Seattle for Desmond Mason and one season of 34-year-old Gary Payton. Or that before John Wall's 2014 appearance, only one Grunfeld draft pick in 21 years as an NBA GM had ever made an All Star team, and it was Michael Redd, and he made it once, and it was as an alternate. Or that he once traded the pick that became Josh Smith for Kevin Willis and someone named Aleksander Redojevic, and then waived Redojevic that same year. Or that, since he first became a GM in 1993, no fewer than 16 different species have gone extinct, the polar ice caps are melting, and scientists discovered something called dark matter which is steadily and irreversibly pushing the universe apart. There are no coincidences.
Remember all this when you consider the poor suffering sonofabitches stuck by one human weakness or another with rooting for this hilarious franchise. As soon as the season ends, Ernie Grunfeld's contract as General Manager of the Washington Wizards expires, and there will be a period of days, or perhaps only hours or minutes, when Wizards fans will know the euphoria of rooting for a team with the remotest chance of building something respectable and competitive and sustainable, while owner Ted Leonsis considers whether to resign his longtime GM. This offseason the Wizards have tough decisions to make about Gortat, Ariza, Harrington, Gooden, and Singleton, and a whole class of free agents to court, and no first round draft pick, but none of those decisions will be anywhere near as profoundly important to the future of the organization as the settling of Grunfeld's future. For the sake of endangered animals everywhere, let's all hope his days as an NBA General Manager are over.