The Washington Wizards fired longtime general manager Ernie Grunfeld on Tuesday, bringing to an end a 16-year tenure marked by failure on the court, chaos in the locker room and embarrassment and frustration among a shrinking base of fans.
Grunfeld had been with Washington since 2003, during which the franchise went 568-724. He oversaw multiple rebuilds, but owner Ted Leonsis decided he wouldn’t let Grunfeld be in charge of another.
The Wizards have a pivotal offseason ahead with major issues to address. The next general manager will be tasked with having to rebuild Washington’s roster with John Wall’s supermax contract on the books and their star point guard recovering from a torn Achilles.
Speaking to reporters, Leonsis cited Washington’s record (32-46) as a reason for Grunfeld’s dismissal. Throughout the season, Leonsis said making the playoffs was a must — even with injuries to Wall and others.
“To me really, the base level was we didn’t make the playoffs,” Leonsis said. “And everyone told me even after the injuries that we had enough. I’m also not blind and I was disappointed that even before the injuries, I didn’t like the way that we were playing so something isn’t gelling.”
Leonsis said he’ll spend the next three weeks evaluating all areas of the franchise, including coach Scott Brooks’ future.
Assistant general manager Tommy Sheppard will assume the role of interim GM, though the Wizards have hired a search firm to find new candidates for the position. Sheppard will be a candidate for the main job.
Leonsis cited his own track record with the Washington Capitals, where he promoted Brian MacLellan, the team’s assistant GM, to the top job after parting ways with longtime general manager George McPhee.
Grunfeld was one of the most criticized executives in the NBA, with critics saying he made shortsighted moves and misspent salary cap space. Under Grunfeld, the Wizards never won 50 games or advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
Just two years ago, though, the Wizards were a game away from the Eastern Conference finals. That summer, Washington extended Wall and re-signed Otto Porter to max contracts. Combined with Bradley Beal under contract for the foreseeable future, Washington touted its young core and believed continuity would help it reach the next level.
That hope was short-lived. The Wizards finished as the eighth seed and failed to get out of the first round last season. Wall, who had knee surgery in 2017, was shut down in late December with a season-ending heel injury — and then tore his Achilles weeks after the surgery.
Facing a situation in which Wall could miss all of next season, the Wizards then traded Porter and veteran Markieff Morris to shed salary. Beal has had a stellar season, but his presence wasn’t enough for Washington to consistently win.
As losses piled up, attendance declined. They rank 19th (17,358) this season, down from 14th last year (17,953). Fans grew restless with Grunfeld as calls for his job could be heard periodically at games.
Leonsis apologized to fans for “not meeting their expectations.”
“I joked a little bit today. I said ‘50 wins not 50 losses,’” Leonsis said. “It’s probably the biggest miss I’ve had in setting goals with what the actuality will be. I apologize, but I do think the fan base knows our sincerity. I’m doing what is necessary.”
Leonsis said he has to be open-minded on the feedback he receives. He wants the search firm to analyze what his franchise’s strengths and weaknesses are and to provide recommendations. He added that insight will inform his decision on who will replace Grunfeld.
As an owner, Leonsis said he likes to have a hierarchy, letting the general manager run basketball operations. He added he has no plans to change that approach once someone new is hired.
Beyond finding a next general manager, the Wizards will have to potentially decide whether to offer Beal a supermax extension this summer — but only if the 25-year-old is named to an All-NBA team.
They’ll also have to make a decision on Brooks, who has two years left on his five-year, $35 million contract after this season. Leonsis didn’t say whether he’ll make a decision on Brooks before hiring Grunfeld’s replacement.
Brooks said he’s not thinking about his future.
“I don’t live that way,” Brooks said. “I understand that decisions are always tough to make, and sometimes, I’m part of those decisions.”
Washington also has restricted free agents in Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis and Thomas Bryant — all of whom the Wizards will have to decide if they’re worth retaining. The team also has veterans like Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green set to hit free agency.
The Wizards entered the season with the fourth-highest payroll and Leonsis noted Washington could end up with the fourth-worst record.
“I’m hitting a reboot,” Leonsis said. “I want to figure out together what the right strategy is, and that would be way premature to say, ‘Here’s what our strategy should be on the go-forward. We’re in deep exploration.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at email@example.com.
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