- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The first two summers of Ernie Grunfeld’s tenure as president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards are memorable for the players he added to the mix.

With eight free agents on the current roster, the summer of 2005 could be remembered for the opposite.

Grunfeld gave his final press conference of the season yesterday at MCI Center, and the hot topic was free agent-to-be Kwame Brown, who was suspended by the team during the playoffs and hasn’t been heard from since.

Grunfeld has long said the team will do everything it can to re-sign unrestricted free agent Larry Hughes. But Brown’s case is not nearly as clear. Despite his sub-par season, which ended with the 7-footer blowing off a practice and a shoot-around that resulted in his suspension, Grunfeld, at least publicly, is not ruling out Brown’s return to the team next season.

“Time heals a lot of wounds and changes a lot of things,” said Grunfeld, who added he will explore all possible scenarios involving Brown. “We have a long summer ahead of us, and a lot of things will happen in that time frame. Everybody deserves a second chance, a second opportunity, so time will tell in what direction we go in. We’re not closing the door to anybody.”

Because Brown is a restricted free agent, the Wizards can match any offer. Grunfeld does have a history of giving players a second chance. As general manager of the New York Knicks, he traded for Latrell Sprewell after he choked Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo.

Meanwhile, the Wizards and the rest of the league have their eyes on the ongoing negotiations between management and the players union for a new collective bargaining agreement. The current one expires at the end of next month. If there is no CBA in place by July 1, teams won’t be allowed to negotiate with free agents and their own players.

Grunfeld said yesterday his philosophy has been to develop the young talent already on the roster, which probably explains why he still holds out hope that Brown, the top pick in the 2001 draft, will reach his potential.

“You always look to improve, and opportunities will come our way,” Grunfeld said. “I’ve said all along what we are trying to do is build a foundation, put some pieces together that we can build with and build around. I think we’ve established that we have some of those pieces in place.

“The first and most effective way to improve is internally. We still have a lot of very young players. Player development is going to be very important this summer. I still think we have a lot of room for individual growth, and that is going to be our number one priority.”

Overall, Grunfeld said he is happy with the performance of both the players and the coaching staff during a season in which the Wizards finished 45-37, a 20-game improvement from the previous season. And he and coach Eddie Jordan like the idea that the Wizards, who qualified for the playoffs for the first time in eight years, will begin next season with even higher expectations.

“Our opponents look at us as a playoff team,” Jordan said. “They are going to come after us, and we have to dictate the way the game is going to be played. We’re a playoff team. Let’s act like it.”

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