The Washington Wizards' season ended last Friday, and the two biggest stories about the team since then are as follows:
- John Wall wants management to make major changes, saying directly that they need an athletic big man and more depth.
- The Wizards secretly gave general manager Ernie Grunfeld a contract extension months ago.
The first piece of news is not all that surprising, given the Wizards' well-documented chemistry issues and shallow roster. The second seems shocking, though it probably shouldn't be: Washington did the same thing with Grunfeld four years ago -- Mike Wise, then of the Washington Post, dropped that news halfway through a column about the Wizards making the second round.
That Washington team, by the way, won 44 games in the regular season. It was the first time Wall made it to the playoffs, and it was supposed to be the start of something. In the four seasons since, the Wizards have won 46, 41, 49 and 43 games, with the high-water mark coming last year. Those Wizards might have even made it to the conference finals if they weren't so tired at the end of their seven-game series with the Boston Celtics (or if Ian Mahinmi hadn't been asked to guard Kelly Olynyk). After this season's first-round exit, though, it is difficult to frame this era as anything but a letdown -- Washington always talked about being an elite team in the East, but never quite had the right pieces to break through. Judging by Wall's comments at his end-of-season media availability, the Wizards' franchise player is as frustrated about this as their fans.
"We go from here to there to here to there every year," Wall said, raising his hand high then low to show instability, via the Washington Post's Candace Buckner. "If you want to be a championship team, be a team that do well in the playoffs and the regular season and succeed, you have to stay at a steady level. You might drop a little bit, but you can't keep going up and down every year all year. That's something we've been dealing with since I've been here."
The way Washington handled Grunfeld's extension, then, is embarrassing. This is a general manager who was hired in 2003 and survived the collapse of the Gilbert Arenas era. Grunfeld drafted Jan Vesely No. 6 overall, gave Andray Blatche a five-year extension and, yes, signed Mahinmi to a $64 million contract. If there is a faction of the fan base that still supports him, it is tiny. The rest of the fan base deserves better than finding out he got an extension through reporting months after the fact.
This quiet extension stings particularly because of where the Wizards stand in the Eastern Conference power structure. They were ousted by a Toronto Raptors team that they swept three years ago but remade itself on the strength of strong drafting, player development and a "culture reset," a stark contrast to what has happened in Washington. The Wizards can no longer credibly call themselves an up-and-coming team, not after trading so many picks in "win-now" moves, not with the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers so well-positioned to compete at the highest level for the next decade or so.
Like many other franchises, Washington is haunted by the summer spending spree of 2016, in which fans imagined Kevin Durant or Al Horford coming to D.C. but wound up watching Grunfeld sign Mahinmi, Jason Smith and Andrew Nicholson. The front office has lacked financial flexibility since then, and, with the 27-year-old Wall signed to a supermax deal through 2021, it has to either figure out how to maximize his prime or consider trading him. A Raptors-style "culture reset" would be welcomed, a full-on overhaul would be easy to justify. As Wall made clear, the status quo is not working for anybody.
And this is the crux of the Grunfeld situation. Despite the team's stagnation, despite owner Ted Leonsis' blog stating that "our singular goal in everything we do is to win a championship," the secret contract extension sends the insulting message that this state of affairs -- 40-something wins, no real runway for improvement, nothing much to get excited about -- is acceptable. What a bummer.