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Ernie the architect lays solid foundation

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Ernie Grunfeld is armed with a newly inked four-year contract extension as he enters his 17th NBA season as a personnel guru.

That comes out to 14 playoff appearances, two trips to the NBA Finals and the 2-for-18 shooting performance of John Starks in Game 7 in 1994.

The latter is the only circumstance that stands between Grunfeld and a championship ring.

The itchy trigger finger of Starks was not his idea. That onus was on Pat Riley, who allowed the infamous number to evolve incrementally in the course of a 48-minute game.

"I don't blame John at all, because in the games before that, he was great," Grunfeld said yesterday by telephone in Richmond, where the Wizards are holding training camp. "That was a great year, very exciting, and we had our chances in that series."

Grunfeld barely missed a third trip in the NBA Finals in 2001, when the Bucks fell to the 76ers in seven games in the conference finals.

The future face of the organization already was in place, courtesy of Grunfeld.

Michael Redd was a second-round afterthought on the 2001 team, hardly envisioned to be a potential All-Star, as he turned out to be.

That is one of Grunfeld's gifts, seeing something in players that others do not.

His signing of Gilbert Arenas in 2003 reflects that power, for Arenas was no two-time All-Star then.

It was suggested at the time that perhaps the Wizards were guilty of overpaying Arenas. Three seasons later, the six-year, $65-million contract that was awarded to Arenas is viewed as a bargain, and not just because of the bare numbers.

Grunfeld thinks Arenas has come to redefine what sweaty diligence is, once embodied in the fierce competitiveness of Bernard King, Grunfeld's old Tennessee running mate.

Grunfeld believes he possibly has found another second-round gem in Andray Blatche, whose rookie season was notable only because of the slug he took to his chest in a carjacking gone bad.

If not, the cost is minimal, no small consideration to those who run NBA teams, Isiah Thomas excluded.

Grunfeld is obligated to have one eye on the court and the other on the salary cap. Players are measured not only by their statistical numbers but by the number of zeroes in their contracts.

There are good and bad contracts all around the NBA, which blows up more potential deals than not and severely restricts the tinkering process.

Grunfeld and his ilk are conditioned to have a view of players that is antithetical to fans. They evaluate players through the prism of their salaries, with the long-term health of the franchise in mind.

Grunfeld has shown a knack to juggle both the books and the players. He remade the Knicks on three occasions and has set the Wizards on an upward path after a generation's worth of irrelevance.

The team is built to last, if not eventually morph into a championship contender in the seasons ahead.

"A championship for everybody in this league is very important," Grunfeld said.

Continuity is the thread that connects most worthy NBA organizations, as Grunfeld has stressed the last few months.

His contract extension follows the one awarded to Eddie Jordan amid the vow to keep the team's young core together.

The offseason bookkeeping involving the president of basketball operations and the head coach eliminates the previously held view, accurate or not, that Jordan was not Grunfeld's guy.

"I think that perception can be laid to rest," Grunfeld said.

All the good feelings emanating from the organization are at odds with a number of tepid views of the Wizards in the preseason.

To which Grunfeld said: "That's why you play the games."

He might tell you how injuries prompted his turn at point guard with the Kansas City Kings in 1981, when a team that was 40-42 in the regular season advanced to the Western Conference finals.

That is Grunfeld's way of saying he will do the building and leave the prognosticating to others.

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