That Ernie Grunfeld would remain as president of the Wizards after a failed season outside of the playoffs was shocking to many, but it shouldn't have been. For the last two months, including what had been reported at CSNmidatlantic.com, barring an 11th-hour change of heart majority owner Ted Leonsis wasn't making any changes. He always had a contract. Wednesday, Leonsis made his position official with the decision-making process that led to the firing of Randy Wittman as coach, hiring Scott Brooks to replace him and keeping Grunfeld on board.
The only person's approval that Grunfeld needed was that of Leonsis who is more than satisifed over what he called a five-year plan to build the Wizards into a perennial playoff team that can eventually compete for a spot in the NBA Finals.
"Not really because we were executing to the plan," said Leonsis when asked if he considered making changes in the front office. "If we had varied from the plan and the plan didn’t work then I think I would’ve been within my realm of my responsibility to take a look. We were executing a plan we agreed to when I bought the team five years ago."
The result was Grunfeld heading up the coaching search that didn't take long when they settled on Brooks. It was a 10-hour meeting in Newport Beach, Calif., where Brooks lives, to hammer out the details last week.
Leonsis, who had a minority stake previously, became majority owner of the franchise in 2010. He only cares about what has taken place with Grunfeld since his ascension. The Wizards won 23 games in 2010-11 and still had malcontents such as Gilbert Arenas, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young. That was Phase I, aka Deconstruction.
Unlike what happened when Leonsis cleaned house with his other franchise's coach and GM a year ago, the NHL's Capitals, Grunfeld followed orders perfectly and has made it all work.
"The one thing that I will say from a leadership standpoint is we articulated a plan in the NHL with the Caps. The only times we deviated from the plan and it didn’t work that’s when I felt management was at risk," Leonsis said. "We said we wanted to be young, we wanted to have depth and we wanted balance and we wouldn’t trade young for old. On a few occasions when we traded young for old or rental players and it didn’t work that ended up being a setback for us. We really looked at that."
Grunfeld pulled off a crafty move for Markieff Morris at the trade deadline in Leonsis' view. The Wizards essentially traded a first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns that will be 13th overall for a starting power forward with stretch capability who is 26 and under contract for just $8 million per through 2019. The likelihood of a college player who is no older than 20 being as good or with as high of a ceiling isn't good. The likelihood of getting a player of Morris' quality in free agency this summer at that pricetag? Impossible. And the deal with the Suns that brought in Marcin Gortat before the 2013-14 season for a pick that turned out to be Tyler Ennis worked in Grunfeld's favor, too.
The trade that shipped aged and slowed Andre Miller to the Sacramento Kings for Ramon Sessions as a backup point guard also held to that principle and worked.
"The big decision on this one was the trade we made this year when we traded a pick for Morris. I looked at that one really hard. Was that one on strategy or off strategy? Who did we get for Gortat. Would I trade Gortat for Ennis? The answer is yes," Leonsis said. "It’s interesting in the exit interviews how the team really liked, admired, wanted to play with Morris."
Grunfeld met his benchmarks by fulfilling Leonsis' playoffs-or-else demand in 2013-14 with a 44-win season and a 46-win season after that for their second consecutive appearance in the East semifinals.
This season was a disaster by those standards, a 41-41 record and no playoff berth that led to Wittman's firing. Still, they're not overextended financially, are major players in the free-agent market and have a nucleus of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Morris, Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat and Kelly Oubre. As many as nine roster spots will come open when free agency hits July 1.
Gortat filled a void that was created when Emeka Okafor ended up with a neck injury that effectively ended his career just before the regular season began. The Wizards had to move quickly and didn't have a lot of wiggle room. With Morris' acquistion on top, they're set up long-term.
"We used that pick but it wasn’t for a player at the end of this career. He still has that upside. We continue to execute on the plan," Leonsis said. "When you can take a step back and say, ‘Is the plan right?’ That’s the big question you have to ask. With the Caps what I learned was the plan was right. It’s when we deviated from the plan we got off bounds. …We’ve stayed on their plan. If they’d gone off that plan we’d probably be having a different discussion right now."