WASHINGTON -- Wizards owner Ted Leonsis set goals for his NBA team at the start of the current season. Specifically a 50-win season and an Eastern Conference finals appearance with reaching the playoffs the baseline level. The team won’t come close to such aspirations, putting Leonsis in the position of wondering why.
His first step toward understanding where things went haywire occurred Tuesday afternoon with the firing of longtime team president Ernie Grunfeld.
The Wizards, mathematically eliminated from the playoffs during their just completed four-game road trip, are 32-46 with games remaining in the regular season
“I’m hitting a reboot,” Leonsis said to a group of reporters assembled at the team’s practice facility in Ward 8.
Leonsis became the majority owner in 2010, but Grunfeld directed the front office since 2003 after prior stops with the Knicks and Bucks.
"Each year that [Ernie] worked for me we sat down and said 'What are our expectations, what are our goals?' And we’re very, very thoughtful and mindful and spend a lot of time on what the goal should be. We set that up this year and we didn’t meet them and so that’s what happened this year.”
Grunfeld oversaw multiple rebuilds during his 16 seasons in Washington including the most recent version with All-Star guards Bradley Beal and John Wall that reached the postseason in four of five seasons entering the 2018-19 season.
“We’re in deep exploration. The organization also needs to heal right now,” Leonsis said. “This was a tough day for us. Ernie has been with the organization for 16 years. Most of the people that are here, he hired. And he worked as a GM for 30 years. He’s a gifted, talented guy. We met and (it) was very straightforward, very professional. It’s as positive of a parting as can be, if you will.”
Leonsis accepted “responsibility” for the team’s failings during his 20-minute media availability. He also offered some initial thoughts on the next steps.
Tommy Sheppard, a 14-year member of the Wizards organization and the team’s vice president of basketball operations, will report to Leonsis on all basketball matters beginning immediately.
The organization will hire an outside search firm to help the team find a new head of basketball operations. That search will include Sheppard, Leonsis said.
Head coach Scott Brooks has two years remaining on a five-year, $35 million contract signed in 2016. Leonsis informed Brooks of his decision with Grunfeld shortly after the team’s Monday practice.
“Well, right now all I’ve done is remove Ernie from the day-to-day. I’ve asked Tommy to take all the direct reports that would go into Ernie and he’ll report to me. I’ve spent one-on-one time with Scott just to tell him I expect us to do, work hard and play hard and continue to give the fans their money’s worth,” Leonsis said.
The major front office change also alters the team’s flow of information. Removing the team president opens the lines of communication with the others in the organization. Leonsis said he intends to use this change to open the dialogue with members of the organization in pursuit of fixes.
“We entered the year with the fourth highest payroll in the league. We could end up with the fourth-worst record in the league,” Leonsis said. “There’s a misalignment there and that all contributed here to did we do the right thing. … But right now, we’re kind of looking at it as we’re starting a process. I can’t answer questions as if I know where the process is going to end. I think if I did that would be harmful to what we have to do. If you say to your employees, ‘tell me the truth, tell me everything in an unabashed, straightforward way so that I can learn, but here’s the answer that I want.' I don’t think that makes for a good process.
“So I’ve asked everyone to be candid, tell me what we have to do. I have to be the editor. I have to cull through all of that input. Then time will tell if we processed that information and made the right decision. No one thinks we’re shy about spending money. No one thinks we’re shy about making investments. No one thinks we’re shy about trying to innovate. We just had a big, big issue this year in saying we thought we could win 50 games and we might lose 50 games.”
The fan base repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with Grunfeld and Leonsis throughout the season.
“It shows me that they care,” Leonsis said. “I think that my first message is I apologize for not meeting their expectations. You’ve got to be honest with yourself. … I apologize, but I do think the fan base knows our sincerity in doing what is necessary. Couldn’t spend much more money. Couldn’t have worked harder to open (the St. Elizabeth’s East Entertainment and Sports Arena). Couldn’t have made the investments in analytics that we’ve been making.
“Couldn’t do much more – at least that’s what I thought. Now we’ll do the work and hopefully I’ll be enlightened. We did too much of this and not enough of that. I’m self-actualized to know that I don’t have all the answers and that I should be humbled because we didn’t do well.”
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