Under Ernie Grunfeld, Wizards players had freedom but little accountability

Associated Press
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After 16 seasons with some good, some bad, and plenty of mediocrity, the Washington Wizards finally moved on from Ernie Grunfeld as GM near the end of this past season.

Job No. 1 for the new GM is not “do we trade or re-sign Bradley Beal?” (although that may be second on the list), rather it is to establish a culture of player accountability. In a fantastic job of reporting for the Washington Post, Candace Buckner dove deep into Washington’s culture under Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis, and the conclusions helped explain all that mediocrity.

Grunfeld, who spent 16 years as team president before being fired April 2, was described as clever and precise but also a pushover, allowing players to dictate their own rules. In seeking to create freedom for his players, particularly stars, he overlooked slight transgressions with the same patience that had been afforded to him by two tolerant owners…

“The reason the culture’s so bad,” said a person with direct knowledge of the Wizards’ team structure, “[is] there’s no one that’s making these guys be responsible.”

As an example, think back to November when John Wall blew up and cussed at coach Scott Brooks in practice. Grunfeld, who had ignored coaches requests in the past to fine his star players, stepped in this time and fined Wall $10,000 for “conduct detrimental to the team,” according to Buckner.

Most other organizations around the league saw that as lenient, but it was the most Wall had ever been fined by the Wizards.

“The s— that happens in Washington, D.C., will never happen in Miami with Pat Riley,” said a longtime agent who has dealt with the front office. “Never.”

The Wizards are currently in the interview and selection process for their new GM, and the names mentioned are Washington’s current interim Tommy Sheppard, and former Atlanta GM Danny Ferry. Toronto’s president Masai Ujiri and Denver’s president of basketball operations Tim Connelly both have been linked to the job but would not be hired until their teams are out of the playoffs, if at all. It would cost a lot of money to pry them out of their current situations, it’s unknown if Leonsis wants to foot that bill. (Gersson Rosas was considered for the Washington job but he took the one in Minnesota instead.)

Whoever gets the job has a lot of roster challenges. There is Wall’s anchor of a contract — a projected $171 million over the next four years for a player who tore his Achilles while already out due to heel surgery. The Wizards will be paying Ian Mahinmi $15.5 million next season and Dwight Howard at $5.6 million. Plus there is the question about what to do with Beal.

However, none of that will ultimately matter enough if the Wizards’ culture and a new level of accountability is not put in place.