It’s time for change in Washington.
Okay, you’ve probably heard that slogan before. But this time, we’re talking about the Washington Wizards, the NBA’s premier underachieving team for the last four decades. Yes, the Wizards, formerly Bullets, haven’t won 50 games in a season since 1978-79. Imagine! Where names like the Clippers, Kings, and Nets stand for futility, Washington’s franchise should be synonymous with mediocrity. Maybe they only avoided that through changing their name.
They’re at it again this year, compiling a 6-11 record with a talented roster than includes All-Stars John Wall and Bradley Beal, supporting role players in Otto Porter Jr, Markieff Morris, Jeff Green, Kelly Oubre, and Austin Rivers, and a center you’ve heard of, Dwight Howard.
I know what you’re thinking: ah, there’s the problem. Howard, the man who’s been on four underachieving teams in his last four seasons, is certainly not a winning player at this point. But you have to believe me, it’s actually not his fault. Howard is actually playing better than his predecessor, Marcin Gortat, did in Washington last year or for the Clippers this year. And when he wasn’t on the court, the Wizards were even worse.
No, the problem is all over the organization. Every player is allegedly available in a trade. Coach Scott Brooks challenged Wall in a practice to raise his intensity. Wall fired back with the magic words that will get you an automatic tech in a game or a fine outside of it, according to ESPN. Wall was indeed fined, and apologized.
Meanwhile, Beal told team officials that “I’ve been dealing with this for seven years,” according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. Then, Beal “grew heated and gestured toward" Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, and “said something along the lines ‘It starts at the top,'" according to Candace Buckner of the Washington Post.
Beal isn’t wrong. Grunfeld is a huge part of the problem here, with just a remarkable history of mistakes that would lead nearly any other general manager out the door in search of a new job. And they’ve come in every aspect of general management. He gave $111 million to Gilbert Arenas in 2008, right as his knee issues and locker room gun-toting prevented him from playing. He gave Ian Mahinmi $76 million after half of a good season. He built a team around the remarkable trio of Andray Blatche, Javale McGee, and Nick Young.
There’s more. In 2009, Grunfeld came into the draft with the No. 5 pick, but instead of using it on Steph Curry, DeMar DeRozan, or even the man it was eventually used on, Ricky Rubio, he traded it away for the immortal talents of Mike Miller and Randy Foye. They led the Wizards to a 26-56 record and left after one season. These are franchise-changing mistakes that weren’t only bad in hindsight, but the decision making process behind them was flawed as well.
Of course, when he has kept the pick, there have been failures, like selecting Jan Vesely No. 6 in 2011, passing on Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker, and Klay Thompson. The picks Grunfeld has gotten right (Wall, Beal) were considered relatively no-brainer selections at the time.
Today, due to Grunfeld’s decision making, this team is stuck in a rut. The Wizards have the sixth-highest payroll in the NBA, paying their 6-11 roster a combined $132 million. But Grunfeld has also painted himself in a corner. They don’t have any flexibility coming up for the next two offseasons, as they’ll still be committed to paying $100 million in salaries to just three players: Wall, Beal, and Porter.
Wall’s contract is especially horrendous, even though he might be the best player of the three. The Wizards will be on the hook to pay him $46.8 million in 2022-23, when he’ll be 32 years old and in the downslope of his career. This is from a guy who clearly has already lost a step and seems to be lounging at times on the court. Oh, and there are locker room concerns as well. As one opposition executive told ESPN, “If they can get anything for Wall and don’t do it, they are idiots."
Beal is talented, and would be tradable, but apparently the Wizards are asking a high enough price to make him “functionally not available,” according to ESPN. That’s fine, Beal’s a talented player worth keeping, but without trading him, there’s just not a lot of value on the Wizards' roster that teams will actually want. The Wizards may just need to bide their time before they can start to rebuild or retool their franchise.
But when that time comes, Grunfeld shouldn’t be allowed to be making the decisions. He’s shown too many times that he’ll make the wrong ones.
THREE MORE THOUGHTS
• The Golden State Warriors lost four games in a row this week, thanks to injury absences from Steph Curry and Draymond Green. But shouldn’t a team with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson alone be better than that? Part of the problem is that Durant has never figured out a way to really turn the engine in Golden State the way Curry can. That being said, it might be the most clever stunt the Warriors have ever pulled: show Durant that he needs them badly, so he doesn’t leave as a free agent this summer.
• The Western Conference is so compressed this season, with the Memphis Grizzlies at the top of the conference at 12-5. Meanwhile, the Jazz in 13th place with an 8-10 record are just 4.5 games back. Parity is the name of the game here, and it almost feels like other competitions Utahns will be familiar with. The Pac-12 South and even the MLS Standings have the same trait.
• Props to the Grizzlies and the Portland Trail Blazers for bouncing back from the bad memories of last season. Memphis has come back thanks to excellent play from their two stars, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, who are now healthy again. Meanwhile, Portland’s responded really well to a devastating first-round sweep from the New Orleans Pelicans last year, with both offense and defense humming.