Four Words You Thought I’d Never Write About Mike Wise

Rescue crews battle against the fumes from Mike Wise's latest column.

Rescue crews battle against the fumes from Mike Wise’s latest column.

If the Washington Post’s Mike Wise is trolling Wizards fans with his latest epistle in praise of Ernie Grunfeld…kudos to him. If he really believes what he wrote…holy crap.

Now for the payoff to that Upworthy headline: Mike Wise is right. Well, his basic conclusion that Grunfeld will keep his job is correct. But just about everything else he wrote? Ill-informed, error-riddled, poorly reasoned garbage.

Now that Wise is allegedly finished expressing his thoughts, bear with me as I retort.

Wise leads off with this:

Among the barbershop banter going around Verizon Center’s media room Wednesday night was the topic of which Washington Wizards small forward had to go in the offseason to avert a talent-and-minutes logjam: Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster or Otto Porter Jr.?

By the time arguments were made on each player’s behalf (given his age and upside, everyone agreed moving Porter after his rookie year would be downright foolish), it dawned on the half-dozen or so of us: We were talking about players who might have to leave Washington because of too much depth at their position. No one could remember such a discussion about a Wizards roster this decade.

This was when I realized Ernie Grunfeld had definitely saved his job.

Several things are downright amazing in these four sentences. Face palm “amazing,” not “John Wall just threw down a breakaway 360 windmill” amazing.

First, mediaites are just now talking about the Wizards having a lot of guys at small forward? Second, this is somehow a good thing? And third: it took Wise until March 5 to “realize” Grunfeld’s job was saved?

Yeah, the Wizards do have a theoretical logjam at SF. People paying attention to the Wizards recognized a potential logjam at that spot before last year’s draft. That’s before the team selected Otto Porter — which was as predictable as…well…Wise writing an inane column for the Washington Post.

That potential logjam — recognized before last year’s draft — called into question the Wizards’ entire offseason strategy. Picking Porter to play SF was a fine move, especially if you’re a “best player available” proponent (as I am). Trading two second round picks for one and selecting SG/SF Glen Rice Jr. was another perfectly acceptable move. Keeping Trevor Ariza for the final year of his contract (instead of trading him) was also a fine move, as was re-signing Martell Webster.

What was decidedly NOT sensible was doing all four in the same offseason. And, a number of smart observers who pay attention and give actual thought to how to construct a good NBA team have been saying so since June 2013.

Grunfeld’s choice to invest so many resources at one position left the Wizards lacking depth up front, which was yet another thing that concerned fans who were paying attention. Washington was counting on two 30+ year old bigs, and 30+ year old athletes predictably do two things: get hurt and get worse.

What happened? Thirty-one year old Emeka Okafor got hurt before the season started, which meant that the Wizards NEEDED to acquire a replacement if they hoped to salvage their season. We’ll get into that in more detail very soon.

Meanwhile, 31-year old Nenê hit the 30+ exacta by both declining AND getting hurt.

More from Wise:

On a playoff-or-bust edict from his owner since training camp, out of injury alibis and facing the prospect of no postseason for a sixth straight spring, the oft-slammed team president launched a deep three-pointer in late October.

Grunfeld acquired a journeyman center from Phoenix and some loose change for an injured Emeka Okafor and a protected first-round draft pick.

That player, Marcin Gortat, has started 60 of 61 games this season.

Gortat has double figures in points and rebounds in 24 of those games.

He has bailed out his team down low, especially now that his bookend 6-foot-11 big man, Nene, is out for at least another month because of a sprained knee ligament. When Nene is healthy, the two play off each other brilliantly; the more Gortat bangs inside on offense, the more Nene can do his ballet outside the key.

That first paragraph is pure sophistry. Trading for Gortat wasn’t a “deep three,” it was a layup, a sure thing. Ditto for the trade to obtain Okafor and Ariza. Wise is suggesting that Grunfeld was taking a chance to get the team back in the playoffs. A competent GM would have addressed the team’s glaring need for frontcourt depth during the offseason instead of burning all of his assets on small forwards and a backup point guard who had been demonstrably terrible for four seasons.

The trade for Gortat isn’t evidence of Grunfeld’s executive acumen, but prime evidence of his incompetence. When the team’s starting center was out of commission, they couldn’t turn to their bench and have even a reasonable hope that the next man up could do an adequate job. Nope, they had to burn a future asset — likely to be in one of the deepest, most talented drafts of the past decade — to achieve the very modest short-term goals for this season.

Next, Wise seems surprised at the level of Gortat’s play this season. While “journeyman” is a fair descriptor, Gortat is doing exactly what should have been expected. Regular readers may recall that before the season, I projected Gortat’s Player Production Average (an overall production measure I developed) this season would be 146. Gortat’s PPA as of my most recent update: 141.

More Wise:

Okafor, still rehabbing, has yet to play a game.

“With March and Nene, we can match up with anybody inside,” Grunfeld said at halftime of a victory over the Jazz on Wednesday night as he leaned against a wall in the club suite where he watches games.

“It was big at that time we made the trade because we knew Emeka was hurt. To bring in a big guy who plays both offense and defense and has a very positive attitude, we were very happy.”

Ernie won’t talk about his future, pleading that I write about something else. Ted Leonsis won’t talk about Ernie’s future, just as he won’t talk about George McPhee’s future with the Capitals. All Monumental Sports business apparently will be handled this summer.

But while McPhee may need a Stanley Cup playoff run of at least two or more rounds to warrant an extension, the signs of Grunfeld being re-signed are growing daily.

ESPN has calculated the odds of Washington returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 as 100 percent (since Golden State and Portland don’t yet have that designation, it apparently does help to play in the Eastern Conference).

I’ve already addressed the content of the Grunfeld quotes. What he says is accurate enough, if looked at in a vacuum. The trade for Gortat (which cost the team a future first round pick) wouldn’t have been necessary if they’d done a reasonable job of adding depth in the offseason. Or, if they’d used the cap space they traded for Okafor and Ariza to get younger players that could be just as productive and have the prospect of improving.

It was nice to see Wise at least acknowledge the benefits of playing in the weak sister Eastern Conference. To add some teeth to the aside, keep in mind that Washington’s record (compiled against the league’s 8th easiest schedule) would rank 10th in the Western Conference. At 32-29, they’d be four games out of 8th place.

Realistically, Washington’s record would be worse in the tougher conference. In my analysis, they’d fall 11th. In the East, they’re fourth or fifth.

More from Wise:

I’ll admit it: I thought Ernie was finally toast. Though I’ve consistently defended him on essentially the same grounds Leonsis has used — Grunfeld is executing the gradual rebuilding plan his employer instructed him to — I wasn’t sure he could recover from re-signing Gilbert Arenas and Andray Blatche to a combined $146 million in 2008 and 2010.

But the recycling king did it, turning Arenas into Rashard Lewis, then into Okafor and Ariza (a trade widely criticized as the Wizards taking on two aging role players for too many guaranteed years and millions) and finally Okafor into Gortat.

The first paragraph from this excerpt is absurdity. The Wizards talked about doing a gradual rebuild, but when presented with resources to acquire young, productive players with a future, they instead traded for older players who could speedwalk them back to mediocrity.

The Arenas for Lewis trade was a solid move. Trading the cap space for older players was shortcutting the rebuild.

Note that last line: “…and finally Okafor into Gortat.” No, it was Okafor AND a first round pick for Gortat. Here’s the total price: maximum cap space, a future first round pick and a future second round pick for Ariza and Gortat. And, if the Wizards want them back, it’ll cost them max cap space again.

More Wise:

This is a very good core group, with its two best players 20 and 23 years old, respectively. The Wizards have put themselves in position salary-cap wise to spend in free agency the next two seasons.

Everything here is wrong. The core group is not “very good,” it’s average. Its best players are 28 and 23 (Ariza and Wall). The Wizards have NOT put themselves in a good position to spend in free agency. The last point is one I addressed last November.

To summarize: the Wizards won’t be in position to ADD to their team via free agency. If they’re to have significant cap room to sign a “name brand” free agent, they’ll have to let Gortat, Ariza and Booker depart. If those guys leave, Washington will need to REPLACE them. If they re-sign Gortat and/or Ariza and/or Booker, they won’t have cap space to pursue a significant free agent.

Now, the team could re-sign Gortat and Ariza (and maybe Booker too), and then go shopping in free agency using the MLE. Then they’d be adding. But, they’d also then be tied to two 30+ year old big men (Gortat and Nenê), who would more likely be declining as Wall, Beal and (maybe) Porter are approaching their potential.

More Wise:

As time has gone on, the bigger picture of Grunfeld’s vision is beginning to emerge. Taking on Nene’s $65 million deal or the remaining $15 million of Ariza’s deal appeared risky, if not foolish, in 2012. But without those pieces and Gortat surrounding John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards aren’t three games over .500 for the first time since the Arenas era and less than two months from possibly their first playoff series win since 2005.

Vision? There’s no vision here. The team is the assemblage of a man trying to save his job. There’s little apparent thought given to a long-term goal like building a championship contender.

The stuff about Ariza, Nenê and Gortat supposes that those were the only moves available. What’s more, getting these players (instead of younger guys who might grow with Wall and Beal) is indictment of Grunfeld’s alleged vision. Gortat and Ariza must be re-signed — re-acquired at the cost of a second helping of maximum cap space. And, as some (including myself) predicted, Nenê is in the expensive, injured, decline portion of his career.

And this is before even getting to the bungling that made trading for veterans a consideration in the first place. When Washington dealt for these guys, younger players — all of whom were selected by Grunfeld — were setting new standards for ineptitude.

Wise writes:

With Joe Dumars reportedly on his way out in Detroit, Grunfeld would have the fifth-longest tenure among NBA GMs behind Miami’s Pat Riley, the Lakers’ Mitch Kupchak, San Antonio’s R.C. Buford and Boston’s Danny Ainge.

Yes, Grunfeld’s the only one on that list without an NBA title. He’s also the only one who was expressly told to do it on the cheap for a few years.

More sleight-of-hand sophistry. Note the use of “…an NBA title,” as if Grunfeld’s team was oh-so-close, but just fell short. So, let’s compare the records of the longest-tenured GMs:

NBA RANK TEAM GM W L W-L%
1 SAS Buford 611 254 .706
3 LAL Kupchak 520 346 .600
4 MIA Riley 515 348 .597
8 BOS Ainge 472 392 .546
11 DET Dumars 458 407 .529
28 WAS Grunfeld 345 520 .399

Perhaps you’ll notice what I did — during the time Grunfeld has been in charge of the Wizards, they’ve had the league’s third WORST winning percentage. In that same timespan, those who have been in place longer have run three of the league’s most successful franchise. And the fourth guy — the one reportedly close to being fired — guided a franchise that was one of the NBA’s best for a seven-year span, and which won a championship.

What’s remarkable to consider is that 22 other NBA franchises were better than the Wizards teams Grunfeld assembled…and replaced their GM.

Wise blathers:

He doesn’t get a pass for drafting Jan Vesely at No. 6 or Oleksiy Pecherov at No. 18. He’s also not the only NBA executive who didn’t take Stephen Curry before No. 7 or DeJuan Blair before No. 37 in 2009.

But, apparently in Wise’s book, Grunfeld does get a pass for picking Chris Singleton ahead of Kenneth Faried, for signing Eric Maynor, or for trading the 5th pick for Mike Miller and Randy Foye.

Wise bleets:

Here’s hoping those in the Why-Isn’t-Grunfeld-Gone? mob can lower their pitchforks and finally notice the team in front of them.

Last month in Sochi, Russia, I ran into a former acquaintance of mine and Grunfeld’s who, within minutes, wanted to know, “How does Ernie still have a job?” I’ve heard this often the past few years, often from people looking for work themselves.

Now that the Wall era is within weeks of its first postseason, the answer is easy: Ernie Grunfeld and his closest advisers were given just the right amount of time they needed to fix what was broke.

For this year, the team is enjoyable to watch. But, those who pay attention to the team know that scaling Mt. Mediocrity this season (and really, it was supposed to be scaled last season, but…you know…that injury to Wall and (this may sound familiar) lack of depth) comes at the expense of the team’s future.

They spent their cap space on older players. To keep those older players, they’re going to have to spend even more cap space.

Because one of those older players got hurt (and they hadn’t obtained a solid reserve big man despite a glaring need for depth), they had to spend a future first round pick (probably in a deep draft) to get another older player.

Because they flunked player evaluation, they had to spend their biannual exception, a previous (failed) first round pick, AND a future 2nd round pick to get an “on his last legs” backup PG.

This kind of twaddle from Wise is what I expected from casual fans when the Wizards punted on the rebuild and instead went all-in for mediocrity. What the team did was cynical in my view — they created an illusion of improvement, not by doing a genuine rebuild with younger players who have a future, but by spending resources on established players on short contracts.

It’s not about lowering pitchforks or wanting Grunfeld gone. When I’ve met Grunfeld, I liked him. In fact, I’ve liked and respected all the front office guys I’ve had a chance to meet. But they haven’t done a good job over the past decade, and there’s little reason to think they’ll abruptly improve in the future.

10 comments

  1. Good post. What would you have done differently? Meaning, tell us what moves you would have made.

    I do agree grunfield got to go, but crapping on a gm is pretty standard and there are just as many teams who are mediocre and with no chance if rebuilding – that is, it’s hard to win. Also, do you think there was pressure to at least give wall the chance to win, knowing the mediocre was the only way possible in the short term?

    1. Various moves I would have made are posted in an array of online places. Some probably here, some at my old blogs, virtually all of them on the Wizards message board at RealGM. I really don’t want to retype all that.

      I’m sure there was some pressure to win with Wall (which Wall could have made easier by playing better himself). But, that doesn’t mean these were the right moves. Had they spent that max cap room they traded to New Orleans on young and productive players, they’d likely have a similar record and a better future.

      As for it being tough to win…well, kinda. It is indeed tough to win a championship. Getting to mediocre isn’t hard at all — especially if you’re willing to trade away future assets in pursuit of it.

  2. If I’m remembering right, Ainge career as Boston GM was in serious jeopardy when his record was 138 – 190 (.421) after four years.

    1. As well it should have been. And then his buddy gave him one of the best players in the history of the league for a bunch of the junk Ainge had put together — soon after that best buddy was no longer working for the Trailblazers (big surprise).

      Ernie Grunfeld has been without question the worst GMs in the league (maybe any professional league in any sport anywhere on this planet) over the longest period in modern history that a single GM has been anywhere near this bad and kept his job.

      Out of his last 14 draft pick-opportunities he has exactly 3 players people would agree are good. His off-season signings have either been injured all year or were so bad they had to be traded *with* an extra draft pick to get a guy his team had been trying all year to dump.

      Really the biggest thing you can say in his favor is that the ping pong balls gave him the #1 pick in 2010.

      But… there’s no way he’ll be fired. So I hope you all enjoy this glimpse of the playoffs before what is now one of the older teams in the league and one of the least financially flexible ones as well starts to see its dim star fall again.

  3. Okay, thanks. But, while i understand you do not want to repost, can you give me names of young and productive players to have signed and traded for? You eviscerate a gm, a pretty easy thing to do, so it’s understood to ask about specific alternatives. Again, I agree with you in some respects. Any posts I can check out?

    I do disagree, too that mediocrity is easy of you trade away future picks. I don’t think we arrived at mediocrity because of that. I thinks we arrived there because of poor previous picks. Or interior is only flimsy because we had poor depth – all of whom were drafted. Right?

  4. Meaning, we had the chance to develop so that we didn’t have to make trades like this. We had the chance to have players we drafted either become more disciplined – young McGee blatche – or simply be different players – booker singleton vesely seraphim pecherov etc., ie players another gm would not have drafted.

  5. On the free agent/possible trade front: Ryan Anderson, Danny Green and Lou Williams come to mind. Ersan Ilyasova. Anderson was exactly the kind of player that should have interested the Wizards — young, skilled and extremely productive.

    I viewed Green and Williams as MLE+ type acquisitions. Williams tore his ACL last season, but his presence on the roster would have eliminated the “need” to sign someone like Maynor.

    This past offseason, I was interested in Darren Collison and DeJuan Blair.

    In the draft they could have taken useful 2nd rounders like: Jae Crowder or Nate Wolters — both of whom projected well in my stat-based draft analysis.

    We agree that the draft has been a MASSIVE failure for the Wizards. The 2011 is sorta the flagship of the S.S. Draft Fail — Vesely over Leonard and Faried; Singleton over Faried; Mack over Isaiah Thomas (who rated as a late 1st/early 2nd rounder in my analysis). And then — to at least a little bit of Grunfeld’s credit — Mack was turning out to be an ok backup PG only to get released twice so the Wizards could keep less productive players.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s