- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2012


Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld has been an all-or-nothing guy to an extent, engineering deals that are great or gross, but rarely in-between.

Acquiring Kevin Seraphin and Kirk Hinrich for the rights to Vladimir Veremeenko was fantastic, especially once Hinrich was traded for Jordan Crawford plus a first-round draft pick. Shipping off Kwame Brown for Caron Butler was another stroke of genius

But giving Andray Blatche a $25 million extension was as boneheaded as the player proved to be. And even with a gun in his face, Grunfeld should have passed on signing Gilbert Arenas to a $111 million contract.

Washington’s latest move — trading Rashard Lewis for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza — doesn’t fall in either extreme category. I don’t love it, and I don’t hate it. The transaction seems like a so-so deal for a mediocre team, perhaps good enough to have a fair-to-middling impact, but not enough to make a substantial leap.

The Wizards should be better with Okafor and Ariza, a pair of proven, defensive-minded veterans who can contribute major minutes and professional pride. Their acquisition, coupled with the late addition of Nene, makes the Wizards significantly more mature than prior to the trade deadline.

This move is intended to enhance, not end, the team’s rebuilding project. “We haven’t touched our core at all,” Grunfeld said in a conference call. The nucleus of young players surrounding John Wall remains intact, ready to be fortified next week with the No. 3 draft pick.

(Speaking of which, it made no sense to declare the pick is off-limits to interested parties. The Wizards could have entertained offers and gauged the market. There are reports that Charlotte is willing to swap the No. 2 pick for James Harden or Rudy Gay. Given its youthful roster, Washington at least should consider opportunities to add young vets with superstar tendencies.)

So the Wizards should win more games next season than any of the past four, when their winning percentage ranged from .232 to .317. Yippee. They even might slip into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed/sacrificial lamb. Hooray.

Admittedly, any improvement beats none whatsoever. But incremental steps don’t take a team far, just enough to miss the lottery or draft at the bottom.

That’s the primary reason for indifference here, the sense that Washington ensured a slightly better record but locked itself at that level for a couple of seasons. Grunfeld raved about the versatility of Okafor and Ariza, but their flexibility doesn’t extend to the salary cap. Their chunk of the payroll comes to about $42 million, a number bigger than the value of their projected contributions.

The Wizards chose to go with the certainty of Okafor and Ariza, versus the uncertainty of luring a free agent or two. While the move is prudent and defensible — NBA players aren’t exactly clamoring to make Verizon Center their home court — it drowns hopes for a splashy addition who could make serious waves.

Even though fans are delusional if they believe choice free agents would choose D.C., there are legitimate concerns about the Wizards’ troubled offense via this alternate route. Only seven teams last season scored fewer points per game (93.6) and only eight teams had a lower field goal percentage (.441). Adding Okafor and Ariza to a lineup with Wall, Nene and whoever, suggests that scoring will remain a chore.

History is another factor in the less-than-enthusiastic reaction. Even with his successful moves taken into account, Grunfeld has inspired little confidence and less optimism during his tenure. Not much has been expected, and the Wizards have delivered without fail. The harshest critics of this latest gambit see more of the same.

I can’t slam this move but I can’t salute it, either. The deal leaves me somewhere in-between, which appears to be Washington’s fate for another two or three years.

Being in the middle of the league is about the worst place for an NBA team. Unfortunately for the Wizards, that would be a marked improvement.

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