In his 16 years as the Wizards’ general manager, Ernie Grunfeld survived a change in ownership in 2010, withstood the infamous guns in the locker room months prior, several coaching changes and mixed results in the draft and free agency.
He outlasted all but three other executives in the NBA with a comparable role and similar title – San Antonio’s R.C. Buford, Boston’s Danny Ainge and Miami’s Pat Riley
On Tuesday, NBC Sports Wizards analyst Chris Miller reported that Grunfeld's time with the Wizards has ended.
“We did not meet our stated goals of qualifying for the playoffs this season and, despite playing with injuries to several key players, we have a culture of accountability and a responsibility of managing to positive outcomes,” said team owner Ted Leonsis in a statement. “I wish to thank Ernie for his service to the Washington Wizards. He and his family have been great leaders in our community and have worked tirelessly to make us a top NBA franchise.”
Grunfeld, who turns 64 on April 24, resurrected a franchise that did not participate in the postseason in 15 of 16 seasons before his arrival in June 2003. The Wizards qualified for the playoffs eight times during his 16 seasons.
At one point during his tenure, specifically after coming within one game of reaching the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, the Wizards appeared poised to contend for the franchise’s first conference title since 1979 with a core he established.
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But he ultimately could not outrun the franchise’s disappointments over the last two seasons combined with uncertainty moving forward. John Wall’s recovery from a ruptured Achilles at a point where the All-Star guard’s $170 million extension begins combined with other personnel decisions limits the roster’s potential even with two-time All-Star Bradley Beal.
The Wizards have undergone three distinct eras under Grunfeld, who was hired by Abe Pollin in June 2003 after previously serving as general manager for the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks. Washington appeared in the postseason four consecutive times from 2005-08, but only won a single first-round series in that stretch. Injuries – and a young LeBron James – road blocked those teams led by Grunfeld acquisitions Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler.
That group crashed to 19 wins during the 2008-09 season. Arenas’ involvement with the infamous guns-in-the-locker-room drama in January 2010 hastened a reboot. Leonsis took formal control of the ownership group five months later. John Wall’s arrival as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft came soon after. The point guard joined a memorable trio: Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young.
Grunfeld remained for the rebuild, which effectively continued for another three seasons.
Washington’s process included dumping the fake building blocks for sturdier versions, Brazilian big man Nene among them. Additional draft lottery selections joined the core. Beal and Otto Porter Jr. were the No. 3 overall selections in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
The year between Wall and Beal included arguably Grunfeld’s biggest draft whiff. 2011 first round picks Jan Vesely, the sixth overall selection, and Chris Singleton played a combined six NBA seasons.
The Wizards finished 44-38 in 2013-14 then knocked off the Chicago Bulls 4-1 in the Eastern Conference first-round best-of-7 series. Washington also advanced past the opening round in 2015 and, under current coach Scott Brooks, in 2017.
Washington reached Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals in a thrilling series with the Celtics before losing the finale in Boston. Grunfeld kept the core together by matching the 4-year, $106 million restricted free agent offer sheet Porter signed with Brooklyn. Later that summer Wall signed a 4-year, $170 million contract extension that tips off in the 2019-20 season.
The organization never returned to those highs over the next 21 months.
Struggles began with the uneven 43-39 record in the 2017-18 campaign, which ended with a first-round playoff exit.
The 2018 season proved more challenging. Wall’s heel surgery in January ended his season. The face of the franchise suffered a torn Achilles soon after, extending his recovery timeline deep into the 2019-20 season.
Facing a salary-capped roster for 2019-20 with only four healthy players on it, Grunfeld traded Porter to the Chicago Bulls ahead of the Feb. 7 trade deadline. Despite Beal developing into an All-NBA performer and Wall’s eventual return, regardless of what emerges from the resulting salary cap space created by the Porter trade, the third era under Grunfeld effectively ended that day.
Leonsis began the season setting goals of 50 wins and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. The bar moved at times as the trying season evolved, but the owner continually emphasized the potential for changes if the Wizards didn’t at least reach the postseason.
“Well, we’d have to look at the entire organization whenever we don’t meet our goals to say ‘well, what happened?’ We have a no excuses mantra," Leonsis told the radio station WTOP in January. "Everybody knows that."
Many didn’t buy the message considering all Grunfeld survived throughout the years. Brooks, whose contract runs through 2020-21, became the fifth coach to work for Grunfeld in 13 years in Washington when he joined the organization following Randy Wittman’s firing after the postseason-less 2016 season.
But this time, even the injuries and the revolving door of a roster that the Wizards have had this year, weren’t enough to keep Grunfeld at the top.
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