PEAY: Five-step plan for Wizards to improve

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The surprise was evident among Wizards fans when owner Ted Leonsis gave team president Ernie Grunfeld a contract extension during the final week of the regular season.

Details were not disclosed, but the deal is expected to keep Grunfeld in Washington for two more seasons.

During a brief, hastily called, and mildly awkward news conference last week, Grunfeld described this season (20-46) as “Year 2 of a three-year rebuild.” Asked if he felt he deserved a contract extension, Grunfeld said, “What’s important is that Ted thought so.”

Now, Grunfeld has to turn things around, and quickly. Last Friday, as the players left Verizon Center after exit interviews with Grunfeld and coach Randy Wittman, they paused to talk about the season, their summer plans, and what they expect next year.

To a man, they expressed the same thought — the six-game winning streak to close out the season was nice, but it’s not enough. They want to compete for a playoff spot next year and are tired of hearing the word “rebuild.” They want to win.

Here are five things Grunfeld must do to get out of lottery purgatory, and put the franchise on a winning course.

5. Move Rashard Lewis and Andray Blatche.

At 32 with gimpy knees, Lewis is not a part of the Wizards’ long-term future. A former two-time All-Star, Lewis has great leadership skills and has helped the young players in countless ways. If he can regain some of his form, Lewis probably has a couple of years left. But He would like to finish his career with a contender, and the Wizards need veterans who will spend more time on the court than on the bench.

Blatche has been a chronic underachiever in his seven seasons with Washington. Worse, he has become the lightning rod for the fans’ frustrations with the team, which last went to the playoffs in the 2007-08 season. Blatche is booed nearly every time he steps on the court, and he has conceded that it bothers him and hurts his play. The 6-foot-11 Blatche is just 25 and still has time to jump-start his career and become a productive player. He needs more maturity, focus and dedication to staying in shape and developing his game. But he also needs a fresh start, and so do the Wizards.

4. Improve the balance of young players and mature players.

The mandate of developing young players has been clear since the team embarked on Year 1 of the rebuild. But young players need veterans to learn from, and the Wizards have had too much of an imbalance between the two. The veterans can’t just be good locker room guys who can’t get on the court because of injury, lack of ability or a decision to keep them on the bench, while the young players flounder in the name of learning out there on their own. The vets have got to get on the court.

3. Build properly around John Wall.

The moment the Wizards traded JaVale McGee and Nick Young and acquired Nene, the change in Wall’s attitude was immediate and obvious. Wall has praised Nene from Day 1, making it clear that in terms of maturity, basketball IQ and the desire to win, his new center is a huge upgrade.

Nene, if he can stay healthy, is a steal for the Wizards, but he’s just one step in the right direction. Getting more players through the draft and free agency who complement Wall, and who he likes playing with, is key if the Wizards want to make sure Wall doesn’t start thinking about moving on in a couple of years.

2. Find a steal on draft night, and in the free agent market.

The Wizards will make their fourth straight appearance in the NBA Draft lottery, and while it takes more than one season to evaluate how last year’s picks [Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton, Shelvin Mack] will grade out, none of them will make the NBA All-Rookie team. Luck with the pingpong balls isn’t promised, but the Wizards need to find a couple of steals in this year’s draft with their lottery pick, and their two second-round picks.

In the free agent market, the Wizards need to add a veteran star, or a couple of talented veterans in their prime, while paying attention to developing the right mix of talent and chemistry. One without the other is a recipe for either total futility or low-seeded playoff flameouts. One look at the New York Knicks makes that clear.

1. Change the losing culture.

It’s not just that the Wizards have had bad seasons, it’s that the team has been an embarrassment of television and YouTube highlight gaffes, goofy head-scratching moments and a weeklong national debate about whether the top team in the NCAA could beat them. Trading McGee and Young went a long way toward changing that, but they need to keep moving in that direction. The Wizards are not seen throughout the rest of the league as a franchise with an attitude and a culture that cultivates winning. This team can’t afford any more knuckleheads, selfish players, immature kids or stat compilers. It’s time for this team, and the entire organization to grow up.

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