The Importance of Being Ernest

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s rebuilding model is an admirable plan and every GM’s dream, but ultimately it’s acutely difficult to replicate. We obsess about the draft and its regenerative powers on a team. Heck, we place a higher value on youth over veteran leadership.

Yet, here’s the thing that OKC didn’t tell you: You could suck-to-high-heavens in the year that delivers you Kevin Durant with pick 2, or in the year that serves up Evan Turner.

The draft is such an unpredictable beast that we would be unfair to chastise those teams that pursue a different course of action.

The Washington Wizards was one team that didn’t really follow the Thunder’s blueprint. Instead, General Manager Ernest ‘Ernie’ Grunfeld augmented their exciting young backcourt with capable veteran guys with little upside.

In many ways, the Wizards’ rebuild wasn’t conventional. Sure, they bagged John Wall and Bradley Beal through the draft, but mostly, their roster is infused with veteran-types like Professor Miller and Trevor Ariza, as well as productive big men who were acquired via trade.

Not everyone elects to participate in the Tankapalooza sweepstakes.

Really, Grunfeld, whose tenure at the Wizards has been marred with mediocrity, learnt from his previous bungled attempts. He simply failed to build through the draft. Despite enjoying four first-round picks between 2003 and 2007, Grunfeld had as much luck nailing the picks as T-Mac enjoyed during the playoffs.

Adding further heartache to the Nation’s Capital, Grunfeld invested too much in Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, which ultimately crippled the franchise for most of the decade (although, he can’t be blamed for Arenas blowing out his knee or for the gun incident).

To his overwhelming credit, Grunfeld ignored his detractors and coordinated a complete roster cleanout in 2010. For nearly a decade, Grunfeld was the fans’ de facto punching bag. Washington was starved of good basketball and Ernie was the easy target. We might not have been able to see the light through all the discontent and Gilbert Arenas’ mega contract, but Grunfeld certainly did.

Patience is an undervalued trait in the NBA and holy crap, did Ernie have some.

John Wall could have been forgiven for thinking that the NBA was really just one messed-up adaptation of Jack Nicholson’s One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest. From teammate punch-ups to all things JaVale McGee, Wall’s first two seasons were uniquely challenging and equally infuriating. The Wiz finished with just 23 wins in his rookie year - I’m not sure what was more divisive in 2010, the Washington Wizards locker-room or the Tea Party movement.

It became increasingly evident that while the Andray Blatche/JaVale McGee/Nick Young combo made for insanely entertaining NBA League Pass viewing, it was also permeated by selfish and low-IQ play.

For the Wizards to get out of the mud they had to get older and more predictable. There is always a moment in every franchise’s history that we look back on and say, “That was the moment”. For recent examples, think of the Rockets pouncing on James Harden or the Lakers stealing Pau Gasol. One led to championships and the other has set the scene for future championship runs.

Trading McGee and Young for a 29-year-old Nenê was perhaps the turning point in the Wizards’ fumbling history. Acquiring the injury-prone Nenê was a risk, but it showed that the Wizards were serious about ascending above mediocrity. At the very least, Nenê’s (and Ariza’s) presence allowed Wall to steadily mature without having to carry a bunch of knuckleheads. Seriously, when was the last time a Wizards player starred on Shaqtin a Fool – a TNT segment they used to dominate in the McGee era?

Unlike other rebuilding attempts, Grunfeld’s string of risks paid off. Everyone laughed when the Wiz dumped Rashard Lewis’ bloated unguaranteed contract to New Orleans for Ariza and Emeka Okafor. And plenty raised eyebrows when Washington tossed its 2014 first-round pick for Marcin Gortat.

Bloody hell we were wrong! Ariza and Gortat are making Grunfeld look like RC Buford. Even Grunfeld could not have known things would work out this well.

Yet, we should temper the hype surrounding the Wiz. A Poop conference without Derrick Rose has catapulted Washington ahead of its projected path. So it comes down to this: Can the Wizards sustain its upward curve? Of the top seven Wizards in minutes per game this year, four are over 28 and two are over 30. This is hardly a team drenched with youth.

Of course, the Wizards are always capable of Wizarding around. Can Otto Porter find good health and hold down the wing position if Ariza walks for a more lucrative offer? Maybe, but probably not.

Will they overpay the soon-to-be free agent Gortat? He’s a solid two-way player who would comfortably fit in with the most rigid offense. So, it’s certainly possible. Heck, JaVale McGee earned more than Tim Duncan this season.

The Wizards now trail Indiana 3-1 in their Conference Semi-Final series.  But it’s not all bad news as their first round victory over Chicago was a clear step in the right direction and, in a league dominated by speedy guards, the Wizards are nicely placed for a run of playoff success over the next few years.

With Wall’s speed and overall command of the game, and Beal’s flat-out shooting, the Wizards could potentially boast the best backcourt in basketball in a few years’ time. Wall is already arguably the premier point guard in the East and Beal is one of four players in NBA history to average 20 points, five assists and five rebounds at age 21 or younger in a postseason.

The Nation’s Capital has always been an alluring destination for athletes. It offers America’s finest gentlemen clubs (Just ask Jalen Rose!) and an awesome “big city” vibe. Now that the Wiz have clawed its way back to relevancy, Washington could be an unexpected player in free agency. K-Love to the Wiz, anyone?! (I’m starting the campaign right here at Downtown!)

In the meantime, let’s raise a glass for Ernie Grunfeld who has finally built a foundation from which a championship contender could spring.

It was worth the wait.


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