No matter what happens in their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup – which can end tonight in Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers – the Washington Wizards have enjoyed a good year.
A winning record for the first time in six seasons. A playoff-series victory for the first time in nine seasons. And the development of a young backcourt that might rank among the NBA’s best for years to come.
That’s a good season and credit is warranted for everyone involved, from the front office to the coaches to the players.
But no one should be so giddy that this is mistaken for a great season.
Despite the excitement of making the playoffs and beating the Chicago Bulls, Washington has yet to reach championship-caliber status. Likewise, the team’s architect, Ernie Grunfeld, has yet to prove he’s the right person to get the team there.
There’s a cavernous gulf between good and great in the NBA. Wizards forward Nene learned the extent during his tenure with Denver. He experienced the bulk of 10 consecutive seasons in which the Nuggets reached the playoffs but survived the first round just once.
Granted, Washington fans would love a shot at being disappointed with 10 straight playoff appearances. Grunfeld got them almost halfway there from 2004-05 to 2007-08, four consecutive postseason trips with just one extending into the second round.
For the record, yours truly is among those who believe owner Ted Leonsis should’ve made a change after the Wizards went 20-46 in the strike-shortened campaign a couple of years ago. Grunfeld had been in place for nine seasons, building one contender and failing to rebuild another while compiling a sorry track record in the draft.
That was enough for me. Leonsis had plenty of reason to “go in another direction” after four seasons in which Washington failed to eclipse a .317 winning percentage. Grunfeld couldn’t argue that a pink slip was unfair.
The Wizards’ success this season is nice. But there are enough tough questions ahead and wrong answers in the past to wonder if Grunfeld’s continued stewardship can get Wizards to “great.” Or even keep them at “good.”
It’s easy to praise him for the trades that brought Nene, Martin Gortat, Trevor Ariza and Andre Miller to D.C. Another brilliant move was finding Drew Gooden on the couch, when other general managers apparently were asleep on theirs.
But that doesn’t cancel the list of draft whiffs and bad contracts. We can’t erase those mistakes from the ledger or claim everything balances out now. My colleague Thom Loverro rightfully calls Grunfeld an “arsonist fireman,” the one who gets credit for extinguishing blazes he ignited.
Leonsis has been patient in waiting for the Wizards’ return to relevance, which might have occurred last season if John Wall didn’t miss the first three months with a left knee injury. You can argue that the owner’s faith in Grunfeld and preference for stability has been rewarded.
Or, you can contend that middle-of-the-pack is as good as it can get under Grunfeld and Leonsis should take a stab at the wave of young hotshots flooding NBA front offices.
Denver employed three different top executives during the 10-year playoff run that ended this season. Two of them, Masai Ujiri (2012-13) and Mark Warkentien (2008-09), won NBA Executive of the Year awards.
Grunfeld’s maneuvers in building the current Wizards team might warrant consideration for the honor … if he had inherited a mess he didn’t create.
He should be thankful he’s not a coach. The Golden State Warriors went from 23 wins to 46 wins and then 51 wins under Mark Jackson, yet he was fired last week. In four seasons under Lionel Hollins, the Memphis Grizzlies made three postseason trips and reached the Western Conference finals in 2012-13. He was fired after that season.
Supposedly, this was a make-or-break season for Grunfeld and the postseason appearance likely makes his position safe.
However, there remain legitimate concerns whether he’s the best candidate to take the Wizards from good to great. There are draft picks to be made, free agents to be signed and trades to be executed. Every GM faces those challenges and no one bats 1.000.
A .500 average might be enough to reach the playoffs, but a higher percentage is necessary to contend for championships.
Leonsis had grounds to replace Grunfeld a couple of years ago. The exciting postseason run has changed the atmosphere at Verizon Center and seemingly justified the decision to keep him.
But that very well could be a short-sighted view when long-term vision is needed.