Elfin: Grunfeld Is One Of The Most Tenured In D.C. Sports, But Least Successful
The not-quite-as-woeful Wizards, winners of four straight and six of their last eight, conclude a fourth straight dreadful season with their road finale tonight at Cleveland before a home game with Miami tomorrow.
Despite its current hot streak and its solid play when recently acquired big man Nene has been in the lineup, Washington’s 18-46 record is the NBA’s worst other than that of absolute doormat Charlotte. Interim coach Randy Wittman is 16-31 since replacing buddy Flip Saunders (2-15) on Jan. 24. The fact that Wittman winning slightly more than a third of his games is seen as progress tells you all you need to know about how downtrodden this franchise has become.
And yet, Ted Leonsis, who became the Wizards’ owner in June 2010 after the death of longtime boss Abe Pollin, has decided to retain Ernie Grunfeld as the team’s general manager.
Grunfeld was a consistent winner with the New York Knicks (a .636 winning percentage, eight playoff berths and two Eastern Conference titles in eight years) and had a better-than-average performance with the Milwaukee Bucks (a .540 percentage, three playoff berths and one trip to the conference finals in four years).
That track record of success hasn’t been replicated in Washington. After his prize acquisition, guard Gilbert Arenas, led the Wizards to the second round of the playoffs in 2005 for the first time in 23 years, coach Eddie Jordan’s team averaged a 42-40 record the next three seasons while losing 12 of 16 postseason games against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
And those were Grunfeld’s glory days in D.C. Since then, the Wizards are 86-224. They’ve overhauled the entire roster, save forward Andray Blatche, who’s currently on a “conditioning” assignment, changed coaches three times as well as the owner. But Grunfeld remains.
Some fans will yell for GM George McPhee’s scalp if the Caps lose tomorrow night’s Game 7 in Boston. But McPhee needed just two seasons to rebuild Leonsis’ hockey team from the NHL’s worst into one of its best and has won two playoff series since (while admittedly losing four in which it was favored). And McPhee drafted Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Braden Holtby from 2004-08.
It’s too soon to evaluate this year’s Wizards rookies, but Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack haven’t contributed much. Blatche and the recently-dealt knuckleheaded duo of JaVale McGee and Nick Young, Grunfeld’s only draft picks from 2004-09 to have any impact, did more harm than good.
That leaves guard John Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. Wall has played well, averaging 16.4 points, 8.1 assists and 4.6 rebounds, but some of his stats are lower in his second season and he certainly hasn’t taken that hoped-for next step.
In contrast, forward Blake Griffin, who beat out Wall for Rookie of the Year last season, has not only put up big numbers, but has led the long-laughable Los Angeles Clippers to fourth or fifth place in the Western Conference after five straight years and 13 of 14 out of postseason.
The Wizards are still such a mess that Cartier Martin, who had just been signed out of the developmental league, was their best player in their Mar. 30 triumph over the Philadelphia 76ers, their only success in an 11-game span from Mar. 22-April 8.
Golden State, Minnesota, New Jersey, Sacramento and Toronto have joined Washington in failing to reach the playoffs the last four seasons, but only the Timberwolves – who rolled to a 93-72 conquest at Verizon Center on Jan. 8 in the teams’ only matchup this year – have won fewer games during that span, 82 to 86.
The T-Wolves have changed front office bosses during their lengthy period of mediocrity. Even Dan Snyder deposed buddy Vinny Cerrato and gave Joe Gibbs control of the Redskins after four straight non-winning seasons. But somehow, some way, Grunfeld survives. And that means that Leonsis’ alma mater, Georgetown, will continue to be the basketball team to watch on F Street next season, too.
David Elfin began covering sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March