After firing Washington Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld Tuesday, owner Ted Leonsis managed a day later to issue a weak “apology” to fans for “not meeting their expectations.”
“I joked a little bit today … I said ‘50 wins not 50 losses,’” Transparent Ted said, referring to his goal for the team this season of 50 wins and the possibility instead for his team to lose 50 games. “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.”
Do you mean the fan base that you chose to ignore season after season that called for Grunfeld’s firing since you took over majority ownership of the team in 2010 after Abe Pollin’s death?
You mean the sincerity you showed in hiding the last contract extension you gave Grunfeld? Or the sincerity in all the fans you blocked on social media who expressed their anger over your team “not meeting their expectations?”
I guess the era of Teddy Candor has begun.
Teddy Candor has declared that the vacant Wizards’ GM job “is the best important job in all of sports right now.” This makes his insistence to leave Grunfeld in that job for eight seasons — half of Grunfeld’s inexplicable tenure as Washington’s GM — even worse.
The “best important job” in sports, and he left it in the hands of someone who diminished it with both disappointment and deceit.
The disappointments have been chronicled for years, resurfacing yet one more time for Grunfeld’s dismissal — his 568-724 record, his failed draft picks like Jan Vesely in 2011, his free agent signings like Ian Mahinmi in 2016, giving Andray Blatche a $35 million contract extension in 2010, trading the 2009 fifth overall pick and three players for Randy Foye and Mike Miller — the list is long.
Grunfeld’s media friends — you know, the ones he would schmooze with phone calls and conversations — would remind you of the good trades and the eight playoff appearances. But it was, for the most part, an illusion and added up to a steaming pile of Leonsis insincerity.
The personnel failures alone should have sent Grunfeld packing long before this week. But the betrayals are particularly disturbing. His kneecapping of two coaches who tried to do the one thing that needed to change within the franchise — the culture.
Grunfeld inherited Eddie Jordan as coach when the GM took the job in 2003.
Grunfeld’s signing of free agent Gilbert Arenas began a revival of the team on the court and energized the fan base. But Arenas had, to be kind, personality issues that would eventually nearly destroy the franchise. Jordan tried to get it under control at one point when he benched Arenas. But that benching was rescinded by the front office.
Undercutting Jordan meant Arenas was answerable to no one.
The erratic, unaccountable star felt empowered to vandalize a teammate’s car, put excrement in a teammate’s shoes and bring guns into the locker room to challenge another teammate.
Eventually, Arenas would be held accountable — in a court of law, where he was convicted on gun charges. Grunfeld should have been a co-conspirator. He’d created the atmosphere that gave Arenas license to do as he pleased.
Here is what Jordan told The Washington Post in 2013.
“It’s not a fair fight,” Jordan said of coaching in the NBA. “Whether it’s against the bully or whoever, you want a fair fight. You don’t want to fight the guy and the guy behind you trips you up and you didn’t see him … A fair fight for me was when I could sit down with [late Wizards owner Abe] Pollin one-on-one, and I could tell him the state of the team and how I felt and my plan. That was a fair fight. That’s when I felt good. That’s when I felt everything was in place. But I didn’t have it after a certain amount of years.”
Jordan wouldn’t be the only coach torpedoed by Grunfeld.
In 2010, the late Flip Saunders benched Blatche during a game for refusing to listen to the coach. “In my 15 years (of coaching), I’ve never seen anything like it,” Saunders told reporters. He also said that he doubted Blatche would play in the next game and that the player would certainly be disciplined.
But Blatche played.
“This was an organizational decision, not a one-person decision,” said Saunders, who was fired two years later. He passed away in 2015 from Hodgkin lymphoma.
In 2013, after Blatche, Nick Young and JaVale McGee were sent packing — the Wizards’ infamous “knucklehead purge” — Saunders told me and Kevin Sheehan on ESPN 980 he’d tried to change the culture from the day he arrived in Washington.
“I was a proponent from Day 1 of changing that whole atmosphere,” Saunders said. “Having been in situations where we had success in both Detroit and in Minnesota, we didn’t have that … When I was there, I made my feelings pretty well known. And actually when I left — and had meetings with Ted Leonsis when I left — I pretty much said the same thing: that the team is not going to take any type of steps until you clean out some of that knucklehead — like you said — the knucklehead factor and get everyone more on the same page.”
So it was Saunders who sold Leonsis on the knucklehead purge — not Grunfeld. He was the GM who had drafted the knuckleheads, after all.
That’s the real legacy of Ernie Grunfeld — the executive who planted the diseased seeds of dysfunction, watched them grow and betrayed those who sought to rip out the weeds by their roots.
⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at email@example.com.
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