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Wizards fire team president Ernie Grunfeld after 16 seasons

Wizards fire team president Ernie Grunfeld after 16 seasons

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.

READ MORE: Ten potential candidates for Wizards GM position

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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Tim Connelly won’t take top Wizards job, to stay in Denver

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Tim Connelly won’t take top Wizards job, to stay in Denver

There won’t be a Tim Connelly reunion with the Washington Wizards after all.

Connelly passed on the opportunity to become the Wizards President of Basketball Operations, and instead will remain in the same capacity with the Denver Nuggets, a source confirms to NBC Sports Washington. ESPN first reported on Connelly's decision.

Washington received permission to meet with Connelly late Thursday evening. He left the NBA Combine in Chicago and flew to Washington Friday for a discussion with Leonsis, a source told NBC Sports Washington. On Friday, Connelly reportedly received the offer to fill the front office vacancy created by the firing of Ernie Grunfeld on April 2.

While the interest in the Wizards was genuine from the Baltimore native, Catholic University alum and former member of Washington's front office, Connelly could not leave the "stable" situation with significant promise in Denver, a source told NBC Sports Washington.  

Connelly, 41, was named Denver’s general manager in 2013. The Nuggets won 54 games and finished the 2018-19 regular season as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. The roster, headlined by All-NBA center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray, is the second-youngest in the NBA. "Tough to give that up," the source said. "Too much to risk."

The Wizards are coming off a polar opposite campaign that ended with a 32-50 record. Significant uncertainty exists going forward with five-time All-Star John Wall expected to miss a large chunk of the 2019-20 season as his four-year, $170 million supermax contract extension kicks in.

Leonsis began a deliberative search process for a new President of Basketball Operations after dismissing Grunfeld, who held the position for 16 years.  While other candidates were interviewed during the process, including interim GM Tommy Sheppard, Connelly’s name was linked to the opening almost from the start.

Connelly considered Leonsis' handling of the discussions first class, according to a source.

Sheppard, former Hawks GM Danny Ferry and Thunder assistant GM Troy Weaver are the other known primary candidates.

In April, NBC Sports Washington first reported Connelly considered the Wizards his “dream job,” according to sources. The Catholic University alum began his NBA career as an intern with Washington in 1996 before holding various full-time front office positions under Grunfeld. He left for New Orleans in 2010.

The Wizards face significant challenges before re-entering contention in the Eastern Conference. With Wall injured, two-time All-Star Bradley Beal is the only healthy returning starter. 2018 first round pick Troy Brown Jr. is the only other valued long-term asset beyond the ninth overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft,

More than half of last season’s roster is entering some form of free agency. Washington could have limited salary cap space depending on which players return.

The situation requires the kind of roster-shaping creativity Connelly demonstrated in Denver. The Wizards now must look elsewhere for their new front office leader.

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2019 NBA Draft Big Board: Post-combine rankings shakeup

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2019 NBA Draft Big Board: Post-combine rankings shakeup

The 2019 NBA Combine has come and gone. Impressions made will linger. 

Before revealing the updated and expanded 2019 NBA Draft Big Board, we dive into news and notes coming out of three days in Chicago.

Also, check out insight into the Wizards options with the ninth overall selection and the latest NBC Sports Washington NBA mock draft.

*Based on conversations with six NBA teams and other league sources, here’s a list of players that stood out during the two days of 5-on-5 scrimmages. Note projected lottery and first-round selections largely did not participate other than Tennessee’s Grant Williams:

Nic Claxton -- The 6-foot-11 center entered the Combine outside of first-round projections. Now the sense is “late first” assuming he remains in the draft after Claxton’s impressive defensive work protecting the rim and switching on the perimeter when needed.

Tremont Waters -- The small point guard tested the NBA Draft pool after leading LSU to the Sweet 16. That looks like a savory decision after a team source declared the one-time Georgetown recruit as the best player during Thursday’s action. The 5-foot-11 Waters splashed 3-pointers off the dribble, showed quick hands defensively and posted a 40-inch vertical.

Jalen Lecque – The Brewster Academy product/NC State recruit received the most praise from various sources, though the unknown with the high schooler likely played some part. The 6-foot-4 guard with a 43-inch vertical leap received lofty athletic comparisons -- his nickname is “Baby Westbrook” -- and his skill in spots matched the hype. The 18-year-old skipped the second day of scrimmages after receiving positive feedback from teams, ESPN reported. There’s a rung to climb before the first-round talk, but scouts certainly took notice.

Luka Samanic -- The 6-foot-10 forward “made friends” within the scouting community after flashing his smooth athleticism, steady shooting stroke and hoops smarts during Thursday’s session. Samanic entered the Combine outside the top 30-35 selections. That probably won’t be the case soon.

Isaiah Roby -- Hey, an upperclassman. The 6-foot-8 forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan made noise with his full-court skills and defensive versatility. According to one source, Roby would stay in the draft if a top 40 selection. How teams decipher his limited shooting numbers last season -- 33 percent on 3-pointers, 68 percent from the free throw line -- could determine which side of that projection he falls.

Others: Brian Bowen, Darius Bazley, Devon Dotson, Cody Martin, Tacko Fall, Jordan Bone

*The trend of top prospects sitting out the scrimmages went up another level to the chagrin of NBA teams. Williams was the only top-35 on ESPN’s pre-Combine list to scrimmage. That the SEC Player of the Year struggled with his shot and perhaps slid a tick won’t help the argument that players should play. “Agents control things,” one NBA general manager mused. “What can you do?”

*The Wizards met with several prospects potentially available in the 31-40 range, another sign of the franchise’s intentions to buy into the second round. That group includes Oregon forward Louis King.

The 6-foot-8 forward offers a 7-foot wingspan. The 39 percent 3-point shooter at Oregon was one of the top “on the move” shooters from 15 feet during non-game shooting drills in Chicago.

“This is great exposure for people that declared for the draft,” the Ducks’ leading scorer told NBC Sports Washington. “I felt like helping my team get to the Pac 12 championship and the (NCAA Tournament’s) Sweet 16, having a lot of confidence in my game, I was ready for the league."

*We can probably remove Ty Jerome from that early second-round grouping. One source put his draft range at 18-22 based on teams interviewing the Virginia guard -- I’ll note Jerome stood out in our 1-on-1 interview -- and reviewing his shooting prowess.

*As for the overall first round, here’s a rough look based on tiers.

We start with Zion Williamson, then Ja Morant with maybe RJ Barrett. From there think 4-9 with that group perhaps expanding or decreasing by a player or two. Then we go 10 to early 20’s. While there’s always the chance a single player stands out for a specific team, the sense from Chicago is this large group makes the idea of trading down from say 9 more hopeful than likely.

2019 NBA Draft Big Board

1. Zion Williamson, PF, Duke

2. Ja Morant, PG, Murray State

3. RJ Barrett, SG, Duke

4. De'Andre Hunter, SF, Virginia

5. Jarrett Culver, SG, Texas Tech

6. Darius Garland, PG, Vanderbilt

7. Coby White, SG, UNC

8. Cam Reddish, SF, Duke

9. Sekou Doumbouya, PF, International

10. Jaxson Hayes, C, Texas

11. Bol Bol, PF, Oregon

12. Brandon Clarke, PF, Gonzaga

13. Rui Hachimura, PF, Gonzaga

14. Nassir Little, SF, UNC

15. PJ Washington, PF, Kentucky

16. Goga Bitadze, C, International 

17. Kevin Porter Jr., SG, USC

18. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, SG, Va. Tech

19. Romeo Langford, SG, Indiana

20. Keldon Johnson, SF, Kentucky

21. Ty Jerome, SG, Virginia 

22. Tyler Herro, SG, Kentucky 

23. Cameron Johnson, PF, UNC

24. Grant Williams, PF, Tennessee 

25. Bruno Fernando, C, Maryland

26. Luka Samanic, PF, Croatia

27. Carsen Edwards, SG/PG, Purdue

28. Nicolas Claxton, C, Georgia

29. KZ Okpala, SF, Stanford

30. Daniel Gafford, C, Arkansas

31. Talen Horton-Tucker, SF, Iowa State

32. Admiral Schofield, PF, Tennessee

33. Luguentz Dort, SG, Arizona State

34. Dylan Windler, SF, Belmont

35. Mfiondu Kabengele, PF, Florida State

36. Eric Paschall, PF, Villanova

37. Isaiah Roby, SF, Nebraska

38. Jalen Lecque, SG, USA 

39. Louis King, SF, Oregon

40. Tremont Waters, PG, LSU 

41. Jalen McDaniels, PF, San Diego State

42. Matisse Thybulle, SF, Washington

43. Ignas Brazdeikis, F, Michigan

44. Darius Bazley, SF, USA 

45. Brian Bowen, PF, USA

46. Naz Reid, C, LSU

47. Jontay Porter, C, Missouri

48. Charles Bassey, C, Western Kentucky

49. Shamorie Ponds, PG, St. John’s

50. Cody Martin, SG, Nevada

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