At high noon on Thursday, Washington Wizards president and general manager Ernie Grunfeld settled into a single seat at the head of a press conference. Since 2003, Grunfeld has been making basketball decisions for the Wizards. He has endured circumstances from odd, to awful to briefly successful.
Despite all the convulsions of the franchise since he has been in charge, Thursday presented a new situation. The Wizards had missed the playoffs. They will likely have no picks in the coming draft. Their chance to land marquee free agent Kevin Durant seems more distant than ever. And, 12 hours before Grunfeld took his seat, he fired the coach.
Randy Wittman walked out of a back room situated between the elevator and restroom on Wednesday night around 11:45. He passed through a door next to the “players lounge” sign not long after defending what he had done since taking over as coach of the Wizards. About an hour earlier, Wittman had explained he was proud of what had been accomplished since he stepped into the role of Wizards coach in January 2012, taking over a dismal organization.
“I love this job,” Wittman said. “I’m going to come to work until they tell me I can’t. I love this job. I’m proud of what we’ve done here. I took over four and a half years ago, and this was a sideshow. All right? And we slowly changed the culture of this team. We had a slip-up this year.”
That was enough to cost Wittman his position as coach. Wittman was informed by Grunfeld the option on his contract would not be picked up for next season after a 41-41 finish put the Wizards three games out the playoffs.
“The players actually tell you what to do, and I thought we were very inconsistent this year,” Grunfeld said. “That was probably the only consistent thing about us. Up and down, and there was no sense of urgency. I don’t think we played with the type of energy on a nightly basis that you need to to achieve the kind of goals that we had.
“We had high expectations internally and externally. I think most people picked us to be a very good team this year. A playoff team. A team that has the ability to have home-court advantage, which was one of our goals, and we didn’t reach those goals.”
The Wizards will be in search of their fifth coach since Grunfeld was hired in 2003. During that time, they are 444-606, a .423 winning percentage. They have reached the playoffs six times, never advancing beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals.
As is typical for executives in this circumstance, Grunfeld used broad terms to describe skills the next coach of the Wizards would need to hold.
“The process is starting [Thursday],” Grunfeld said. “We’re looking for someone that fits this team. Can coach on both sides of the ball. Obviously, we want to get back to being a good defensive team. We also want to improve at home.”
Asked about his future with the organization going into the final year of his contract, Grunfeld was steadfast.
“I’m here,” Grunfeld said. “I’ll be heading up the coaching search. And, we’re going to be here.”
The new coach will have little roster clarity beyond the likely starting five. The Wizards positioned their roster to have maximum salary cap flexibility this summer, when the league cap is expected to rise significantly. During the course of this past season, Washington used 11 players in the last year of their existing contract, leading to an opportunity for a large personnel turnover.
Shooting guard Bradley Beal is a restricted free agent, a status that gives the Wizards an opportunity to offer more contract years and money than any other team. Washington can also match any deal Beal could receive from another team. He turned down a contract extension offer from Washington before last season began.
With the expectation that Beal returns, the opening five for the Wizards is apparent: John Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat. Beyond Kelly Oubre Jr., who will enter his second season following limited usage in his first, the bench is open. Nene will be an unrestricted free agent, as will Garrett Temple. Jared Dudley and Alan Anderson, brought in this season, will join Nene and Temple on the market. Anderson and Dudley expressed a desire to return following the final home game.
The draft will not be a vehicle to change the roster. Washington traded its first-round pick as part of the deal to acquire Morris during the season. It was protected if it should land in the top nine selections. Since the Wizards finished 41-41, which will be the second-best record among non-playoff teams, the only way the Wizards can retain the pick is if it ends up in the top three via the lottery process. There is a 2.2 percent chance of that happening. Grunfeld traded the Wizards’ second pick as part of the deal to move up in last year’s draft and select Oubre. Grunfeld views Morris as the equivalent of a first-round pick and gave no indication the Wizards are interested in moving back into the draft.
Grunfeld said the new coach will select his staff. Wittman’s assistant coaches will be given consideration. He also said that the future playing style will be at the discretion of who is hired next. Wittman chose to move to a pace-and-space offensive style last season after success with the approach in the previous postseason. The Wizards improved slightly on offense, but were dreadful for the majority of the season on defense, shunning what had been their priority the last three seasons.
Out-of-work coaches who are expected to be looking at the Wizards’ opening, among others, are Scott Brooks and Tom Thibodeau. When asked if prior NBA coaching experience is a prerequisite for the next coach, Grunfeld said the organization is open to all candidates.
“This is a very desirable situation for a lot of people,” Grunfeld said. “We have a starting five coming back. We have a young player in Kelly Oubre who has a lot of potential. Bradley is obviously a free agent, and we hope to get him signed. Very few teams are playoff ready. We can be. We also have a lot of flexibility from a financial standpoint moving forward.”
Among the projections before last season started, the only element that remains is the Wizards’ financial flexibility. They will watch the playoffs from home. They will hire a new coach — once again. They will almost certainly have no draft picks. Odds of landing Durant seem as slight as the ones to land the top pick in the draft.
“I think we took a major step back,” Grunfeld said.
There’s lot of evidence to support that claim.