On Tuesday afternoon, Ted Leonsis showed up to the Washington Wizards’ practice facility. Ernie Grunfeld did not.
Leonsis, the CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment and majority team owner, rarely makes the trip to Southeast Washington for the purpose of dropping in on the Wizards. He prefers to respect the pecking order of the basketball operations and stay out of the day-to-day business. But there was business that had been a long time coming: Grunfeld, after 16 years as team president, was fired.
Ultimately, the team’s inability to reach the playoffs this season led to Grunfeld’s demise. The Wizards rank 11th in the Eastern Conference, and if they lose all four remaining games this season, they could reach 50 losses. The season capsized under realistic goals of success and though Grunfeld lost his job over it, Leonsis shouldered the blame for the team’s performance.
“While Ernie got the news today, I take responsibility,” Leonsis said. “I really do think if you are a grown-up leader that you have to do this. It’s not fun. But we failed, and I failed. So I don’t want to fail.
“It’s probably the biggest miss I’ve had in setting goals with the actuality will be,” Leonsis continued. “I apologize, but I do think the fan base knows our sincerity in doing what is necessary.”
Leonsis informed Grunfeld of his decision earlier in the day in a meeting away from the facility. Leonsis then went to the Entertainment & Sports Arena, where the Wizards were practicing, to speak with coach Scott Brooks and senior vice president of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard, who has been promoted as the interim head of basketball operations while the franchise undergoes a search for a new president.
Under Grunfeld’s watch, the Wizards never won 50 games in a season or advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Overall, the team went 568-724 during Grunfeld’s tenure, a win percentage of just .439.
A common refrain from Wizards fans eager to see Grunfeld ousted pointed toward the fact that only four other executives served as long in the same role — Miami’s Pat Riley, Dallas’ Donnie Nelson, San Antonio’s R.C. Buford and Boston’s Danny Ainge — all of whom have won at least one championship during that time.
Among Grunfeld’s notable recent decisions was a four-year, $64 million deal for center Ian Mahinmi in the summer of 2016 and maximum contracts for three core players he drafted — John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. — which hampered the team’s financial flexibility and ability to improve. Porter was traded this season mostly for financial relief, while Wall is expected to miss most or possibly all of next year with an Achilles’ tendon rupture, just as his supermax kicks in at a base salary of $37.8 million for the 2019-2020 season.
Grunfeld also oversaw the construction of an exciting Wizards team led by Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, which qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years. However, that squad was eventually undone by an infamous incident in which Arenas brought guns into the team’s locker room, leading Grunfeld to later rebuild around Wall.
Leonsis has hired an outside firm to provide services during the search for a new president, as well as advise what the Wizards can do better in the future. Leonsis also said he plans to spend the next three weeks hearing from current employees. Nothing will be off limits. Leonsis wants honesty.
“This now gives people permission to speak with me, and I can break that hierarchy, and so I look forward to that. I haven’t made any opinions on what we’re going to do on the go-forward. I’m going to be in total learn-what’s-happening mode. I mean, we’re very cognizant, I’m very cognizant of the calendar on what will happen with the lottery and what will happen with free agency and what will happen with the draft,” Leonsis said. “I want to do what’s called ‘best practicing.’ What do the best organizations look like? What do they spend? Maybe I made mistakes in the way we spent and invested our money. I have to be open-minded.”