Photo by Joe Glorioso for The Sports Capitol
the curious case of grunfeld's extenstion
BY BEN STANDIG | MAY 3, 2018
The biggest open local secret is now out there.
Whispers that Washington Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld signed a contract extension began circulating in the fall, when the Wizards were believed to be contenders in the Eastern Conference. The Washington Times dropped hint of a rumor in a scathing column after the Wizards bowed out of the playoffs Friday in a first-round loss to Toronto. The Washington Post moved the story from rumor to confirmed Thursday, citing a person close to the situation.
The Sports Capitol spoke with over a dozen sources about the rumored extension throughout the season, during the playoffs and after the Times column stirred the Wizards fan base. The silence spoke loudly.
Several sources claimed they heard something about the extension, but rarely first-hand. One source vaguely recalled a casual conversation with a member of the Wizards front office. Others placed themselves at social gatherings where power brokers mingle and gossip flies. Nobody found the rumor interesting enough to flinch let alone ask more questions or express shock. Think urban legend, but instead of some scandalous tale nobody would want made public, it was a mundane story about a man in his early 60s keeping his job.
That Grunfeld had remained in his position since 2003 despite numerous lows that would kneecap others is why many of those aware of the buzz told The Sports Capitol they did not know this was news.
One source within the organization confirmed to The Sports Capitol that the deal was done before the calendar flipped to 2018. Two years for the extension, they said.
A Wizards spokesman declined comment on Grunfeld’s extension or terms, which is standard practice for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which runs the Wizards and Capitals.
For many, if not most, this is the only headline involving this story that matters: Only 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 – have been in charge as long as Grunfeld, 62.
Those other three executives have overseen championship teams during their tenure. That the Wizards have not reached the conference finals in this stretch is among the reasons why Grunfeld is a polarizing figure within the Wizards’ fan base. He has retained his job despite multiple postseason failings, mixed results in the draft and free agency and running through a handful of coaches. Washington’s overall winning percentage during Grunfeld’s time: .441 (536-678).
That the organization gave an extension to an executive with that résumé perhaps explains their behavior. No news conference. No press release. The approach is an extreme version of what Capitals’ general manager Brian MacLellan went through when news of his extension leaked. The team did not speak about it beyond confirming its existence.
Washington qualified for the postseason in eight of Grunfeld’s 15 seasons. It did not participate in the postseason in 15 of 16 seasons before Grunfeld’s arrival.
Everyone reading this extension story is doing so in the current context of it following a lost season. Yet in the fall of 2017, the Wizards were coming off a 49-win season. They fell one game short of the Eastern Conference Finals and becoming the first of the four main Washington professional sports franchises to reach its own Final Four since 1998.
Washington had just locked up two of its key players to multi-year deals, thus ensuring the core of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter would remain intact after reaching the postseason in four of the last five seasons.
Even if those in charge over at 601 F Street NW are not the celebrating types, it seems like a simple acknowledgement at the time made sense. Man who directed Wizards to a successful run with players he acquired remains in his job.
Instead, the opposite, and worse, because the news broke following a down season. The question is why.
The most consistent response from sources wasn’t shock over the extension. It was dismay over the quiet. If you gave Grunfeld an extension, be proud, many stated. There’s enough good to point out even amid the painful lows. If fearful of a PR hit, think about why before deciding to keep the band together, others noted.
Locking down the specific length of the extension became the challenge. The source confirming the extension would know about the basics. It just wasn’t someone in the top tier of the organization’s hierarchy or a Grunfeld confidant.
People holding those distinctions were asked. They kept quiet. Never said no or claimed the questions were barking up a false extension tree. They just said nothing. “Why are you asking me?” one responded. “Ask Ernie.”
Any form of Grunfeld contract specifics are typically hard to unearth. Grunfeld did not speak at this season’s final media session. During a rare media session last June, he was asked about his status to which he replied, “I am under contract, yes.”
The follow-up question was, “Until when?“
“Until I’m not,” he said.
The Wizards finished the 2017-18 season an underachieving eighth in the Eastern Conference with a 43-39 record. They lost to the Toronto Raptors, 4-2, in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series. That step back came in a season that began with the Wizards considered among the top Eastern Conference contenders.
They rarely played at a consistent, high level during a season peppered with numerous bizarre losses. Wall, a five-time All-Star, missed half of the 82-game regular season because of a knee injury. That was a factor. However, many of the head-scratching losses took place when Wall was on the floor with the rest of his teammates.
The organization still has not won at least 50 games in a season since 1978-79, when the Bullets reached the NBA Finals. The current streak of five seasons with at least a .500 record is the franchise’s longest since seven in a row from 1972-73 through the 1978-79 season during the distant glory days of the franchise.
The Wizards have undergone three distinct eras under Grunfeld, who was hired by former owner Abe Pollin in June 2003 after previously serving as general manager for the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks.
They made four consecutive playoff appearances from 2005-08 with only a first-round win in the first trip. Injuries – and a young LeBron James – stifled those teams led by Grunfeld acquisitions Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. That group cratered to 19 wins during the 2008-09 season. Arenas’ involvement with the infamous guns-in-the-locker-room drama in January 2010 rushed a reboot.
Ted 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 fun-house version of an NBA Big 3: Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young.
Leonsis kept Grunfeld on. The winning didn’t return for another three seasons, during which Washington’s process included dumping the fake building blocks for sturdier versions, Brazilian big man Nene among them. More lottery picks were used to form the current core. Beal and Porter were the No. 3 overall selections in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Grandiose draft mistakes occurred the season before Beal and Porter were selected. Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton, Washington’s two 2011 first-round picks, played a combined six NBA seasons.
The Wizards went 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 before last season’s stall.
Brooks is the fifth coach to work for Grunfeld in the 13 years he has been making decisions for the organization. Considering the team was 444-606 at the end of coach Randy Wittman’s final season, wonder about Grunfeld’s job status accompanied Wittman’s firing following the 2016 season. Leonsis said when Brooks was introduced that he did not consider making more sweeping changes in the organization that offseason than firing the coach.
“Not really, because we were executing the plan,” Leonsis said then. “If we had varied from the plan, and the plan didn’t work, then I think I would have been within my realm of responsibility to take a look. But, we were executing a plan we agreed to when I bought the team five years ago.”
Leonsis explained at the time that the Wizards were in “Phase 3” of the plan, which would later include a super-max contract for Wall. First, he said, was deconstruction. Next was building through the draft and creating salary cap space.
The Wizards went into the summer of 2016 with an incorrect belief that Kevin Durant would consider joining the team. They had almost $28 million in salary-cap space to pursue free agents. The results of that spending — Ian Mahinmi, Jason Smith, Andrew Nicholson — have severely handcuffed the roster’s financial and physical flexibility. Grunfeld’s handling of that period has become one of the black marks on his ledger, right alongside draft errors like Vesely and Singleton. Those failings have been countered by successes in drafting Wall, Beal and Porter, as well as trading first-round picks to round out what has been one the league’s better starting fives since it was assembled.
That core group of Beal, Porter and Wall are all under maximum contracts. They helped the team to consistent playoff appearances. However, roster imbalance and depth concerns played a factor in Washington’s last two postseason exits.
“I wouldn’t really say really deeper (this season) I mean to be honest in my opinion,” Wall said Saturday. “I think we added some pieces that helped us out at times but I think at the same time we could have added some more. … I think just as our front office people, we just have to figure out what really fits with the team and I think we’ve been trying for some years to figure it out. I think we got this summer that’s really an opportunity to try to make some more switches then make it a deeper team and a more stronger team.”
The Wizards’ roster as currently constructed is good, but not championship quality. One mistake fans often make is believing an organization’s primary goal is the ring. For most it’s not. Professional basketball is a business. Never forget. The on-court product affects the bottom line. Just not always as much as some think.
The realistic goal for any franchise should be this: Put yourself in position where, if the breaks go your way, the team can capitalize. Grunfeld did that in recent seasons. The breaks just rarely went the way of the Wizards, whether the injuries during the Arenas era or Wall breaking his hand during the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals against Atlanta.
He also botched opportunities for advancement. The summer of 2016 was a disaster and played out in the spring of 2017 when Brooks tightened his rotation late in the Boston series to the point of exhaustion in part because he had no depth to trust. It also pulled at attempts for progress throughout the failures of the 2018 season.
Grunfeld is going nowhere. There are reasonable explanations why. The organization declined to share them with anyone, instead putting forth silence that is odd as it is loud.
Todd Dybas contributed to this story.
Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.