How Ernie Grunfeld helped save the Wizards

May 7, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) reacts after a game against the Boston Celtics in game four of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
May 7, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) reacts after a game against the Boston Celtics in game four of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /

With his future looking bleak, Ernie Grunfeld had an offseason to remember as he helped bring the Washington Wizards back to NBA relevance

When people think about Washington D.C., the word mediocre is frequently thrown around. In the words of The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg:

"It’s not Philadelphia or Boston, cities that are gripped by year-round soap operas starring multiple professional teams. It’s not New York, known for relentless pressure to win championships or Chicago, considered one of America’s great sports towns”"

Yet, differences and all, D.C. cares about one thing: Winning. And this season, team president Ernie Grunfeld did something the Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets can only phantom – return a winning atmosphere to the district.

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It all began on a Wednesday night in mid-April. Moments after Washington won their season finale against the Atlanta Hawks last season, head coach Randy Wittman received a call from Grunfeld informing him that his option would not get picked up for the 2016-17 season.

An hour later, Wittman gave farewells near his office, while Wizards fans rejoiced – as if they won the mega million dollar lottery.

Wittman felt bits of success guiding Washington to the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2014, then again in 2015. But heading into 2016, hefty expectations showered over them and Washington did nothing but wet the bed. They failed to make the playoffs after back-to-back trips to the Conference Semifinals.

Wittman took a page from Mike D’Antoni, shifting his attention to the offense by installing a full-fledged pace-and-space system that never fully worked. His signature (which is defense) suffered considerably.

The Wizards ranked 19th in offensive rating and 14th in defensive rating.

On top of their mediocre play on the court, getting into a shouting match (reportedly) with your star player doesn’t exactly help your cause.

With Wittman out of the picture, the clock was ticking on Grunfeld and he was desperate for a coach. And not just a stopgap. Grunfeld needed a coach with credibility around the league, one that had proven himself already.

He needed a leader who could maximum the franchise’s most prized possession in John Wall, unleash the potential in Bradley Beal and revolutionize Otto Potter Jr.

Grunfeld was hiring for his job. Wizards fans were growing tired of him, and was nearing levels of unpopularity that only James Dolan can relate to in New York.

Then, all of a sudden, boom. Grunfeld hired Scott Brooks. Grunfeld signed Brooks to a five-year, $30 million-ish contract.

After hiring a proven winner, one who had led Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to the NBA Finals just a few years ago, die-hard D.C. fans begun easing up on Grunfeld, hoping that this move alone would give them a shot at bringing Kevin Durant back to the Nation’s Capital.

However, Brooks didn’t focus on Durant. Instead, he keyed on his roster and John Wall. Brooks knew that the NBA had transformed into a point guard’s league. He ran the position for 10 years in the Association himself, and spend six-plus seasons nurturing Russell Westbrook in OKC, currently on of the league’s most dominant players.

Brooks saw the blazing speed, size and athletic John Wall that many other league executives saw, but he also believed there was room for him to grow, the untapped potential.

"[via Washington Post]“He’s been a three-time all-star, which is incredible, “That’s cool in itself but he has another level, maybe two or three levels. Not only from a basketball standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint.” He has the ability to be one of the best players in the game,” Brooks said. “He can fill up the stat sheet. He can score at a high level, and he’s improved his three-point shooting. I like his ability to make plays for others. Always been a high-assist guy. His rebounding is good, solid for that position.”"

Brooks also knew the team couldn’t function off Wall’s abilities alone, he needed a partner in crime. That’s when he shifted his attention to Bradley Beal, while investing $128 million in the sharpshooter.

Then it was Grunfeld’s job to strengthen the roster. With Durant eyeing a move out West, Washington moved on. They didn’t even get a meeting with the biggest name on the free agent market.

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Offseason Report Card: Wizards get three As, three Bs, C and D for summer moves
Offseason Report Card: Wizards get three As, three Bs, C and D for summer moves /

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  • Instead, they signed center Ian Mahinmi (after narrowly losing out on Al Horford to the Boston Celtics). They also acquired Trey Burke from the Utah Jazz to fill their backup point guard spot.

    Jason Smith, Andrew Nicholson and Marcus Thornton were also signed, hoping to give the bench some life.

    The 2016-17 season for the new-look Washington Wizards got off to a rocky start. Everything that was supposed to go right, went left. Washington was 3-9 a few weeks into the new season. Players were frustrated, management was second-guessing every move and beat writers began to question whether the organization had taken a step back instead of one forward.

    But John Wall wasn’t his usual self…yet. After offseason knee surgery, Wall was just warming up.

    Grunfeld was patient and stood by his offseason decisions. And that patience paid off.

    The Wizards won 9 of their next 11 games, bullying opponents on their home court – they won 14 straight games at the Verizon Center.

    After shaking off the offseason rust, Wall hadn’t just become what Brooks envisioned, but he grew into something bigger and better. Wall averaged career highs in points (23.1), assists (10.7), steals (2.0), field goal percentage (45%) and free throw percentage (80%).

    Wall embraced the challenge and lead Washington to a 10-5 December record and 12-4 mark in January, while earning Player of the Month accolades. Perhaps his most impressive feat, though, came during crunch time. When Washington needed him most, Wall came through. He finished 5th in total points during the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, per 

    The city of Washington may still be grieving, but, if anything, one thing is for certain, the future is very bright

    But it wasn’t just Wall. At the same time, Brooks got the most out of Beal too. Beal’s scoring increased by six points from last season (23.1), and his overall field goal percentage (48%) and three-point percentage (40%) also improved.

    Then, there was Otto Porter Jr.’s growth. Porter Jr. likely played himself into a max deal, or something close to one, this season by having a career year himself. And unlike Wittman, Brooks actually gave Kelly Oubre Jr. minutes, showing how valuable he could be.

    At the same time, everything wasn’t peaches and cream. Washington still ranked 29th in bench production, per At the NBA Trade Deadline, Grunfeld did his best to address this liability by trading for sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic and signing Brandon Jennings after he was bought out by the Knicks. Though, those moves didn’t manage to move the needle much.

    Nevertheless, the Wizards went on to win 49 games. Washington would beat the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs (in six games) before falling to the Boston Celtics (in seven games) in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, destroying the city’s hopes of a first Conference Finals appearance among the four major sports since 1998.

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    But what’s important is Ernie Grunfeld proved he could deliver the goods, and his goods delivered bigger than ever.

    Grunfeld made the Washington Wizards truly relevant again. The city of Washington may still be grieving, but, if anything, one thing’s for certain, the future is very bright. Its winning ways are here to stay.