Ernie Grunfeld, Unsung Hero of the Washington Wizards' Renaissance

The much-maligned, longtime Wizards GM has quietly assembled a winning, watchable basketball team. Will anybody notice? 
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Ernie Grunfeld, right, congratulates point guard John Wall during a news conference to announce Wall's new contract with the NBA basketball team at the Verizon Center on Aug. 1, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The District of Columbia is not a professional basketball town. Statistically speaking, the Washington Wizards draw fewer fans and fill a smaller percentage of their arena than the Capitals, Redskins, and Nationals. Walk into a random bar on a game night, and there’s a better chance televisions will be screening the World Series of Poker rather than the Wizards telecast.

Of course, a name that evokes images of young warlocks storming the parapets of Hogwarts doesn't engender brand loyalty.

The lack of general visibility may be one reason few people—within the nation’s capital and outside of it—are talking about Ernie Grunfeld, the oft-criticized front-office executive who has quietly assembled a very good basketball team. Case in point: In the first round of the NBA playoffs this week, the Wizards dispatched the Chicago Bulls with surprising ease, overwhelming the favored Bulls 4-1 with their size and athleticism. The team faces the Indiana Pacers next.

To say Grunfeld’s tenure in Washington has been a rocky one would be a massive understatement. But it’s Grunfeld who deserves significant credit for the Wizards’ recent resurgence: The Wizards roster as it stands now has largely been his handiwork.  

This isn’t the first comeback Grunfeld has engineered, of course. When Grunfeld assumed general-manager duties in 2003, the Wizards were reeling from the departure of Michael Jordan. The team lacked direction and young talent to build around. Grunfeld quickly executed a series of brilliant maneuvers: He signed unheralded free agent Gilbert Arenas and acquired Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler for pennies on the dollar. The new team clicked and made four consecutive postseason appearances. Arenas became one of the league’s most recognizable stars, winning fans over with his colorful style of play and even more colorful commentary via the now-defunct “Agent Zero” blog. For a moment, Grunfeld seemed like a genius: He had resurrected a franchise on life support in the narrowest of time frames.

All at once, it all fell apart. Arenas tore his MCL in 2007. He underwent several surgeries to repair the joint, but he never recovered the explosive first step that made him so un-guardable during his prime. The team also now lacked young talent. But Grunfeld doubled down on the team he had, signing Arenas and Jamison to massive contracts. With a significant portion of their salary cap tied to an injured superstar and an aging veteran, the Wizards could not attract marquee free agents.

Then things just got weird, as Arenas admitted to storing firearms in his official team locker and received a lengthy suspension from the NBA front office for behavior detrimental to the league. What was once an upstart team led by a rebellious misfit quickly evolved into an uncomfortable example of professional athletes exhibiting tone-deaf behavior. The team hit a new low during the 2008-09 season by winning a mere 19 games. Soon after, Arenas, Butler, and Jamison were gone, supplanted by Nick Young, Javale McGee, and Andray Blatche, three players who made up for in on-court cluelessness what they lacked in talent.  

Grunfeld rightfully shouldered the blame for the sudden decline. He had invested too much in Arenas and Jamison and failed to build through the draft. Despite having four first-round picks between 2003 and 2007, Grunfeld did not select a single player of consequence. The national media advocated for Grunfeld’s dismissal and criticized him relentlessly. When the team drafted University of Kentucky phenom John Wall with the first pick of the 2010 draft, they were a middling franchise in need of a savior. To the chagrin of the team’s few hardcore fans, recurring injuries to Wall’s knees and consistently shaky play during his first three seasons raised doubts about the young point guard’s ability to resurrect Washington basketball. The calls for Grunfeld’s dismissal continued.

To his vast—and, up to this point, unrecognized—credit, Grunfeld ignored the critics. After acquiring Wall in the 2010 draft, he coordinated a complete roster revamp.

The makeover didn’t always go smoothly, but it has helped the franchise finally find success: The Wizards are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and have made the second round for the first time since 2005. Wall and second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal are the franchise’s cornerstones, but they would not be gaining valuable playoff experience this season had Grunfeld not acquired mercurial power-forward Nenê in a trade that also rid the Wizards of Young and McGee and upgraded the center position by swapping the over-the-hill Emeka Okafor for the peaking Marcin Gortat. Few teams in professional basketball feature two effective, old-school post players in their starting lineup. The Wizards are one of those teams, thanks to Grunfeld. If there’s anything Grunfeld’s time in Washington has taught us, it’s that 1) he’s not great at acquiring talent through the draft (Wall and Beal being the two notable exceptions), and 2) he excels at bringing players to the team via trades and free agency.

This season, Grunfeld finalized the Wizards’ roster by skewing old. He signed Drew Gooden and Andre Miller, two mature players who defied expectations during the second half of the season. Game One of Washington’s first round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls demonstrated just how vital Miller has become. The 38-year-old point guard came off the bench to score 10 points and singlehandedly kept the game close in the third quarter of a 102-93 victory. This week, the Wizards completed a surprise upset over Chicago to advance to the second round of the playoffs, a feat few people could have foreseen just six months ago.

Despite the unexpected turn of events, praise for Grunfeld has not rained from the rafters. Those raving about the Wizards have raved specifically about Washington’s backcourt tandem and underappreciated center. Recognition for Grunfeld, the de facto punching bag for the team’s failures over the past half decade, remains scarce.

Perhaps the hesitation to embrace Grunfeld stems from a latent suspicion toward the team’s long-term strategy. While the Wizards have a chance to advance to this year’s Eastern Conference finals, the team is still far from championship material. And a dearth of high picks in upcoming drafts will make acquiring the "third banana" needed for title contention something of a challenge. Skeptics will quickly, and correctly, point out that Grunfeld has gotten the Wizards to this  in the past. He hasn’t yet proven he can take the team to the highest level of NBA competition.

Still, Grunfeld has given a city starved for good professional basketball an entertaining team they can root for, and he’s built a foundation from which a championship contender could feasibly spring. Will anyone notice?

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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