Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld Has Silenced Even His Harshest Critics

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Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld Has Silenced Even His Harshest Critics
Alex Brandon/AP Images

If you spent the last decade as a grumbling, grousing, tortured Washington Wizards fan—which is to say, a Wizards fan—you had no shortage of options for expressing your discontent.

You could sign multiple petitions demanding the ouster of general manager Ernie Grunfeld.

You could strut around the neighborhood in a crisp, white "Fire Ernie" T-shirt.   

And you could spend hours feeding your resentment while perusing FireErnieGrunfeld.com, the Internet's definitive compendium of Grunfeld missteps and minutiae. It's all there, from Jan Vesely to Oleksiy Pecherov, from the Gilbert Arenas contract to the Andray Blatche contract to, well, many other regrettable contracts.

But the burgeoning blame-Grunfeld cottage industry has been dealt a serious setback: The Wizards are winners again.

Not only that, they've become the dark-horse darlings of this NBA postseason, upsetting the Chicago Bulls in the first round and giving the top-seeded Indiana Pacers everything they can handle in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Though the Wizards could exit the playoffs soon (they trail the Pacers 3-1 heading into Tuesday's game), there is no disputing that this season has been a rousing success. That the future looks exceedingly bright. That Grunfeld has assembled a talented, well-rounded lineup, worthy of excitement.

John Wall is electric. Bradley Beal is scintillating.

It's a great time to be a Wizards fan. And a bad time to be an anti-Grunfeld agitator.

"It's really hard to think about Ernie right now," said Sunday Umoh, the founder of FireErnieGrunfeld.com, "because this is something that we've been hoping for, for a long time. This team actually has potential, a future. And it also has the potential right now to do something special. It's pretty amazing."

Umoh, a 29-year-old information technology professional who lives in Baltimore, has not moderated his position on Grunfeld. He is, however, placing his enmity on hold. He's too pumped up about the present to contemplate the recent past. He has not updated his website since late November.

"It's just too depressing to go back to right now," Umoh said.

This current team—powered by the electrifying backcourt of Wall and Beal—is worthy of praise. And so is Grunfeld, who drafted Wall (2010) and Beal (2012) and adeptly surrounded them with quality veterans, from Nene and Marcin Gortat to Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster and Andre Miller.

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Little was expected of these Wizards, but they won 44 games and finished fifth in the East, securing the franchise's first playoff berth since 2008. Then they bounced the mighty Bulls in five games—the Wizards' first playoff series victory since 2005, when Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison were leading the way.

Even some of Grunfeld's most-derided moves are now seen in a different light.

Critics ripped the Wizards for sending their 2014 first-round pick to Phoenix in the trade for Gortat last fall. But Gortat quickly became the Wizards' frontcourt anchor, allowing Nene to play at power forward, giving Washington one of the top frontcourt tandems in the league.

The 2012 trade that brought Ariza and Emeka Okafor to Washington was roundly panned at the time, because it severely reduced the Wizards' salary-cap flexibility. But Ariza has been a vital defender and three-point shooter, and although Okafor broke down, Grunfeld flipped him for Gortat.

In the NBA, the win-now, pay-later moves often look bad at the moment they are hatched, but markedly better if the team making the deal does, in fact, win now. The Wizards have. Grunfeld has earned a measure of redemption.

But the phone goes silent the moment a reporter invokes the word "vindication." A longtime veteran of the front-office circuit—first with the New York Knicks (1990-99), then the Milwaukee Bucks (1999-2003)—Grunfeld knows better than to gloat. It's also not his personality to self-promote. He is unfailingly measured in his public remarks.

"We haven't done anything yet," Grunfeld said last week. "We're still in the middle of the playoffs. We've made progress. But we're not where we want to be at."

Ernie Grunfeld as Wizards GM
Season W L W% Playoffs
2013-14 44 38 0.537 Down 3-1 in 2nd round
2012-13 29 53 0.354 Missed
2011-12 20 46 0.303 Missed
2010-11 23 59 0.28 Missed
2009-10 26 56 0.317 Missed
2008-09 19 63 0.232 Missed
2007-08 43 39 0.524 Lost in 1st round
2006-07 41 41 0.5 Lost in 1st round
2005-06 42 40 0.512 Lost in 1st round
2004-05 45 37 0.549 Lost in 2nd round
2003-04 25 57 0.305 Missed

basketball-reference.com

Grunfeld strays from his conservative talking points only momentarily, to point out that the Wizards might have made this postseason splash a year ago if not for a knee injury that sidelined Wall for two-and-a-half months to start the 2012-13 season. Beal went down later in the season, short-circuiting the new backcourt partnership.

When Wizards fans get giddy about the future it is because of Wall and Beal, who already rank among the top guard tandems in the NBA—Wall with his blinding speed, Beal with his smooth shooting stroke. The pair averaged 36 points a game this season.

Of course, the Wizards were only in position to draft Wall and Beal because they were lousy enough to be a lottery team in the first place, and because they got a few favorable bounces from ping-pong balls. Wall was taken with the first pick in 2010, Beal at No. 3 in 2012.

It takes more than lottery luck to build a quality team, though, and it was Grunfeld's acquisitions of Nene, Gortat and Ariza that put the Wizards in playoff contention. Even Grunfeld's harshest critics will acknowledge that much. But they won't forget the anguish and humiliation of the recent past, either.

Arenas nearly destroyed the franchise with his locker-room gunplay in December 2009. By then, the Wizards had already become the NBA's halfway house for wayward veterans and young knuckleheads, from Blatche to JaVale McGee to Nick Young.

It was in June 2009 that Grunfeld made perhaps his most-infamous trade—a deal that sent the No. 5 pick in the draft to Minnesota for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. The Wizards were a youthful bunch, and the thought then was they needed a veteran infusion. But Miller and Foye never made much of an impact, while Minnesota used the No. 5 pick to take Ricky Rubio. Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan were still on the board, too, as Wizards fans will quickly point out.

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Umoh launched his website in 2012, in a fit of despair, after the Wizards fell to 0-12. He spent a year filling it with angry rants and recitations of missed opportunities.

Every front office makes its mistakes—a blown trade, a blown draft, an ill-fated contract. It's what they do next that matters, and Grunfeld and his staff have recovered quickly from that dark era, thanks in part to the extraordinary patience shown by owner Ted Leonsis, who purchased the team in 2010.

Leonsis resisted calls for Grunfeld's dismissal. He preached patience, then gave the front office the latitude to rework the roster. Not a single member of the Arenas-era Wizards remains.

"Ted was extremely supportive," Grunfeld said. "He said we're in this together. And he understood that it's not going to happen overnight."

It did happen, though. The Wizards are respectable again, highly entertaining and easy to root for. Beal and Wall are model citizens. Nene plays with equal amounts of joy and feistiness. The bandwagon is filling up, with commentators flocking to the cause after the Wizards' stunning upset of the Bulls. By the end of the first round, TNT's Charles Barkley was declaring that Wall and Beal would soon be the NBA's best backcourt. More than a few pundits predicted the Wizards would upend the Pacers and make the conference finals.

Even Robin Ficker—the heckling superfan who earned fame while relentlessly taunting Bullets opponents in the 1990s—returned for Game 4 of the Wizards-Pacers series, after a 16-year absence.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The Wizards are truly back. The bandwagon is nearly bursting. It's a strange moment for longtime fans, who never dreamed a revival could come so soon, and can't quite square it with their anger toward the man who made it possible.

"I will give him credit for this current team right now," Umoh said of Grunfeld, though he hastened to add, "I don't want him to make the decisions next year."

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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