No matter what happens in their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup — which can end Tuesday night in Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers — the Washington Wizards have enjoyed a good year.
A winning record for the first time in six seasons. A playoff-series victory for the first time in nine seasons. And the development of a young backcourt that might rank among the NBA’s best for years to come.
That’s a good season and credit is warranted for everyone involved, from the front office to the coaches to the players.
But no one should be so giddy that this is mistaken for a great season.
Despite the excitement of making the playoffs and beating the Chicago Bulls, Washington has yet to reach championship-caliber status. Likewise, the team’s architect, Ernie Grunfeld, has yet to prove he’s the right person to get the team there.
There’s a cavernous gulf between good and great in the NBA. Wizards forward Nene learned the extent during his tenure with Denver. He experienced the bulk of 10 consecutive seasons in which the Nuggets reached the playoffs but survived the first round just once.
Granted, Washington fans would love a shot at being disappointed with 10 straight playoff appearances. Grunfeld got them almost halfway there from 2004-05 to 2007-08, four consecutive postseason trips with just one extending into the second round.
For the record, yours truly is among those who believe owner Ted Leonsis should’ve made a change after the Wizards went 20-46 in the lockout-shortened campaign a couple of years ago. Grunfeld had been in place for nine seasons, building one contender and failing to rebuild another while compiling a sorry track record in the draft.
That was enough for me. Leonsis had plenty of reason to “go in another direction” after four seasons in which Washington failed to eclipse a .317 winning percentage. Grunfeld couldn’t argue that a pink slip was unfair.
The Wizards‘ success this season is nice. But there are enough tough questions ahead and wrong answers in the past to wonder if Grunfeld’s continued stewardship can get Wizards to “great.” Or even keep them at “good.”
It’s easy to praise him for the trades that brought Nene, Martin Gortat, Trevor Ariza and Andre Miller to D.C. Another brilliant move was finding Drew Gooden on the couch, when other general managers apparently were asleep on theirs.
But that doesn’t cancel the list of draft whiffs and bad contracts. We can’t erase those mistakes from the ledger or claim everything balances out now. My colleague Thom Loverro rightfully calls Grunfeld an “arsonist fireman,” the one who gets credit for extinguishing blazes he ignited.
Leonsis has been patient in waiting for the Wizards‘ return to relevance, which might have occurred last season if John Wall didn’t miss the first three months with a left knee injury. You can argue that the owner’s faith in Grunfeld and preference for stability has been rewarded.