Sunday, October 10, 2010 9:45 p.m.
By Frank Hanrahan
There's new ownership, but not much has changed on the personnel decision-making side of the organization as Ernie Grunfeld returns for his seventh season as Wizards president and Flip Saunders is back for his second year as the team's head coach. Despite having the top pick in John Wall, the return of a former all-star in Gilbert Arenas and a much improved Andray Blatche, Grunfeld and Saunders have made it clear that they view this as a rebuilding season. Expectations are not high, but still Grunfeld and Saunders have a lot to prove this season after the miseries of 2009-10.
"When Ted (Leonsis) and his group took over and I first met with Ted, we had a great meeting," Grunfeld said. "He said his philosophy was to try to build through the draft with young players and try to get a group that we could form a foundation with so we can be a playoff contender for many years to come, and hopefully one day win a championship. That's our goal. That's our mission."
The Wizards are preaching patience while the foundation of rebuilding is being laid, but how long will the fans be patient, especially when the architect of the team has had a very spotty track record as of late?
Perhaps Grunfeld kept his job because he recognized the need to jump-start the rebuilding process right around the trade deadline last season, as he dealt away a floundering bunch of veterans in an effort to go younger and cheaper.
"We felt that team we put together got stale and we needed to make changes," Grunfeld said.
And he wasn't kidding. Just four players return from a disastrous 26-win campaign a season ago.
In a summer when they so desperately needed to get lucky in the NBA draft lottery with John Wall available, the organization amazingly hit the jackpot, and it nabbed the all-everything guard out of Kentucky with the first pick. Grunfeld couldn't mess this pick up as many felt he did in the '09 draft when he took a gamble and lost badly by trading away the fifth overall selection to Minnesota for two players, Mike Miller and Randy Foye, neither of whom are with the team. Grunfeld was hoping those two would be the final pieces to a playoff run with the veteran ball club that he put together. But it all backfired, highlighted by Gilbert Arenas's suspension for 50 games for bringing firearms into the Verizon Center locker room.
To have nothing to show for the fifth overall pick is unacceptable. Grunfeld felt prior to that 2009 draft that number one pick Blake Griffin was really the only good player in the lottery, and with the fifth pick there wasn't a player who could step right in and help the Wizards. I think rookie standouts Brandon Jennings and Tyreke Evans might have had something to say about that.
Grunfeld was very busy this summer as he did business with teams eager to create cap space to sign free agent Lebron James, who eventually made the decision to take his talents to South Beach and play for the Miami Heat. Chicago sent guard Kirk Hinrich, along with a draft pick and cash, to the Wizards for basically nothing in return. New Jersey did the same kind of favor for the Wizards, trading forward Yi Jianlian to Washington for Quentin Ross. Both the Nets' and Bulls' gambles did not pay off as James went to Miami. The Wizards still don't know if Hinrich and Yi will actually pan out for them, but so far in the preseason both players have looked pretty good. But remember, it is just the preseason.
Saunders will tell you he likes this rebuilding thing. He has a chance to take young players and develop their game in the way he sees fit. Saunders expressed his frustration at times last year with veterans who were set in their ways. Those veterans are gone, so this season it will be different with the "Back to Basics" theme the coaching staff has implemented with a focus on fundamentals.
"Assume they know nothing, just try to go through everything, try not to leave any stone unturned," Saunders said.
Saunders has proved he can be a successful NBA coach, with a 613-562 record in a 15-year career with stints in Minnesota and Detroit while making the playoffs 11 times. From 2001-08, Saunders' teams won 50-plus games every year. It didn't hurt to have the likes of Kevin Garnett in Minnesota and Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton in Detroit, but still a very impressive run nonetheless.
When Saunders came on board more than a year ago, the landscape was completely different. He went from coaching a veteran-laden group then to almost overnight managing a very young team -- but that's just all right with him.
"I got Garnett when he was very young, when he hadn't picked up any bad habits, so whatever you teach him he thinks that's the way it's supposed to be," said Saunders. "What you hope to happen here is give these guys that opportunity to show them and explain to them what it's all about."
And what it's all about, at some point, is winning a lot of games -- right? I asked owner Ted Leonsis what his hopes are in terms of how long until the wins start outweighing the losses.
"I have no prediction of when the team can make the playoffs or win a championship," he said. "I don't want to be a flash in the pan. I think being generationally trusted, making the playoffs year after year, is what we are trying to build here."