Ball Don't Lie

Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis backs GM Ernie Grunfeld in the face of one rough question

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Leonsis, Grunfeld, coach Randy Wittman and star guard John Wall in August (Getty Images)

Washington Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld was hired by the team in 2003, and though he presided over Washington’s best playoff run in two decades from 2004-2008 (three first and one second round appearance), overall his teams have missed the postseason six times in 10 years. Entering his 11th campaign, Grunfeld’s squad was thought to be a fringe playoff contender after it split the final 50 games of the 2012-13 with a healthy John Wall in tow. Those ideals were nearly shot to bits when center Emeka Okafor was declared out “indefinitely” with a herniated disc.

As a result, those playoff ideals have taken a hit. But not nearly as bad a hit as team owner Ted Leonsis took on Wednesday in a question and answer session with local media. From the Washington Post:

“One of the ways that people tend to describe Ted Leonsis is even-keeled,” WUSA’s Dave Owens began. “Ernie Grunfeld, your GM, people have been calling for his head for years and years. The patience of Ted Leonsis with a guy who’s got almost 200 more losses than wins, what it is about him that you see that made you say I’m not gonna get rid of him, I’m not gonna fire him, I’m gonna stay with Ernie?”

Dang. That’s harsh.

“Well, it’s a plan that we articulated together,” Leonsis answered. “This is my fourth season owning the team. Whatever circumstances there were beforehand, they didn’t deal with me. And Ernie is very well respected around the league. We’ve blown the team up, John Wall is our most tenured player, and I worked with Ernie and we articulated a plan and we’ve been executing the plan together”

Ted went on to point out the “confidence” he has in Grunfeld, but the proof is in the playing.

If Okafor sits out half or most of the season (the team has yet to set a time frame on his return), those playoff odds seem slim – especially with lottery participants like Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto slowly getting their ducks in a row, and the Milwaukee Bucks (the eighth seed in last year’s playoffs) doing all it could to circle the wagons during the offseason.

Leonsis will pay over $70 million for the team that Grunfeld has put together, and the only reason Ernie hasn’t gone out to find a new center in Okafor’s absence (say, former Wizards reserve Jason Collins) is because his team’s current payroll is just over $1 million less than the luxury tax threshold. Signing a player like Collins to the veteran’s minimum would make the Wizards taxpayers, all for a team that still might top out at 35 or so wins if Okafor stays on the bench for most of the year, or is severely limited for the bulk of his minutes.

Ted Leonsis wasn’t the Wizards owner when Grunfeld took over in 2003, as he didn’t take over majority control of the squad until 2010. Ted was a major part of the team’s re-branding and image in the years prior, while working as minority owner, a hands-on executive that was surely consulted quite a bit as Grunfeld made the jump from the Milwaukee Bucks to Washington Wizards in 2003.

The bottoming out that Leonsis mentioned started with the slow dismantling of the unit led by Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, but along the way Grunfeld has committed to some pretty poor contracts, some blown draft picks, and some curious personalities (to put it mildly).

Yes, he may have put together a playoff participant in 2013-14 if everyone stayed healthy, but paying near-luxury tax money for a hoped-for seventh or eighth seed? That’s not great basketball business. And though Okafor and Trevor Ariza’s big deals expire during the 2014 offseason, John Wall’s massive maximum contract starts up in 2014-15.

Grunfeld and Leonsis committed and committed big to this roster, injuries be damned, and one slipped disc may be doing them in. Publicly, the Wizards owner seems committed to his GM.

In the face of the confused press, at least. Who knows what’s going on behind closed doors in the Washington front office?

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