- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Jay Gruden knows what it’s like to be in limbo. After the 2018 season, the former Washington Football Team coach conducted his end-of-the-year press conference, but there was one problem: Gruden hadn’t been told yet if he’d be allowed to return for another year.

“I really don’t know why I’m up here, to be honest with you,” Gruden said from the lectern.

Washington waited four days before Gruden was officially notified that his job was safe for 2019. The reality, however, was that the wait turned out to be an ominous sign — The team fired Gruden just five games into the following season after an 0-5 start.  It was a commitment that wasn’t.

Two years later, the Washington Wizards are in a similarly awkward position with Scott Brooks.

Two weeks have passed since the Wizards were eliminated in five games by the Philadelphia 76ers — and Washington still hasn’t decided whether Brooks will be retained for next season, a source with knowledge of the situation said.  General manager Tommy Sheppard said after the season he would take his time to evaluate the situation, and that appears to be the case. But that leaves Brooks’s status up in the air: Do the Wizards truly want him?

“There was a whole bunch of people pulling together and Scotty was absolutely an orchestrator of keeping everybody positive and moving through some very dark moments,” Sheppard said. “I give him great credit for that. We all, collectively, have to evaluate what’s best for the Wizards moving forward. That’s what we’ll do, it’s just not going to happen overnight.”

The major difference between the situations is that Gruden was already under contract for 2019 whereas a new deal must be negotiated for Brooks. That can complicate factors and suggests that if Washington signs Brooks to an extension, they believe in his vision.

Still, the details will matter if Brooks is given a new deal. Will it be shorter or for less money than the original five-year, $35 million contract he signed in 2016? Will he be forced to make any changes to his staff as a condition to stay? Those factors could be an indication whether Brooks’ seat is safe next year — or if the Wizards are leaving wiggle room to make an in-season change like the football team did.

Ideally, a team doesn’t give a contract extension just to make a change. But it has happened. The Sacramento Kings gave former general manager Vlade Divac a four-year extension in April 2019 — and fired him in August 2020. In the NFL, the Los Angeles Rams ousted then-coach Jeff Fisher in 2016 just one week after details of a two-year extension were leaked to the media. (Fisher’s deal was signed months before.)

In fact, the Wizards have even done it.  Washington quietly gave former executive Ernie Grunfeld an extension during the 2017-18 season — and he was gone a year later.

In five years with the Wizards, Brooks has gone 183-207 with three playoff appearances. The Wizards haven’t topped the success from Brooks’ first year when they were a game from the Eastern Conference finals, but Brooks has strong support in the locker room from star point guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook told reporters Brooks “wouldn’t be going anywhere” if the decision was up to him.

After the season, Brooks could only answer so many questions about his future — all phrased a slightly different way. Yes, Brooks said, he wants to stay with Washington. No, he wasn’t going to sell himself. In an awkward moment, Brooks appeared to be fed up with the line of questioning when a reporter circled back to the topic.

“Let’s be real,” Brooks said. “You can have three or four years on your contract. Does that really mean anything? Players get cut and bought out. Coaches get fired and paid off. … Like I said, I was raised better (than) to be worried about myself.”

Brooks may not be worried, but eventually, he’ll have to get some form of clarity. The Wizards can’t afford to keep dragging this situation out.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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