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Wizards cast Ernie Grunfeld aside, now await rescue leader

April 3, 2019

The Washington Wizards’ situation reminds me somewhat of Mark Wahlberg’s character in “The Perfect Storm.”

Remember the final scene, after the rest of the crew and a would-be rescuer are dead? Wahlberg escapes from the sinking boat and pops up from underwater. Hooray!

He represents the Wizards, who just (finally) threw Ernie Grunfeld overboard.

We thought it was a happy ending and Wahlberg survived. Then the camera pulls back, ever so slowly, and we realize the full extent of his horrific plight. He’s alive, yes, but bobbing in the midst of ginormous waves, with raging water all around for as far as the eye can see.

He’s doomed. Dead man treading.

The Wizards’ predicament isn’t quite as dire. But ditching Grunfeld doesn’t come close to fixing everything that ails the franchise. It just represents a chance to right some wrongs and hopefully avoid further damage moving forward.

When it comes to running an NBA team’s front office, only 30 such jobs exist. So even the worst opening is pretty good, if being a general manager is your ambition. However, the Wizards’ gig will require heavy lifting from whoever takes the helm. Grunfeld has left a shambles in his wake, doing his eventual successor no favors.

How Grunfeld held onto his job for 16 seasons is a mystery. But that’s not the only magic trick he pulled off.

Somehow, he constructed a roster that has few bona fide players under contract next season Bradley Beal, John Wall and, perhaps, rookie Troy Brown Jr. yet also has virtually no cap space to pursue top free agents. Only the league’s dregs would make D.C. their first choice, though we assume the new hire won’t give them a player-option like Dwight Howard inexplicably received.

Oh yeah, Grunfeld also traded away every second-round pick until 2023.

But aside from salary cap hell, the millstone named Ian Mahinmi, limited draft options and an absence of assets whose initials aren’t B.B., Washington is a great opening!

On the positive side, the next general manager should receive a lengthy contract with no pressure to produce immediate results. For a long-awaited change, the Wizards can stop being short-sighted and look at the big picture instead.

Taking the long view would’ve led owner Ted Leonsis to this decision in fewer than 16 years. Even now, it’s frightening to think he would’ve retained Grunfeld if Washington reached the playoffs this season.

“It was a very binary decision,” Leonsis said Wednesday at a news conference. “We set what our goals were, and we didn’t meet our goals, so I had to make that decision.”

Making the playoffs would’ve put some more zeroes in his bank account, but his team would’ve been in the same miserable condition, likely needing a massive overhaul to escape mediocrity.

Leonsis said he’s “willing to do whatever the right strategy is” to make the Wizards great. Presumably, that includes trading their best chip, Beal, who just might be eligible for a “supermax” extension this offseason. Whichever direction the next executive chooses, the team needs to embrace fully.

Given the lack of roster flexibility, a full-scale rebuild seems like the prudent choice. A creative executive would really earn his salary if he pulls off a different strategy that keeps Beal in the picture. Either way, the Wizards represent a tempting mass of clay, ready to be molded in a new head honcho’s image.

Expect things to get worse before they get better.

Wall will miss most, if not all of next season, and there’s no telling how much athleticism is lost forever. Absent a stroke of tremendous fortune, the Wizards first-round pick will closer to No. 10 than No. 1. There will be a plethora of roster spots and little to entice the most-desirable players.

Nonetheless, Leonsis views Washington’s gig as a plum, “the best important open job in all of sports right now.”

It certainly should be. As a city, Washington has everything that top NBA players could want. They just have to be inspired to change the culture of losing, rather than letting it dissuade them from coming here.

Luring name-brand free agents is a long way off. The Wizards would do well to secure a high lottery pick next season to accelerate the process. Overcoming Grunfeld’s handiwork won’t be easy, but at least he’s off the boat.

All we need now is the right person to save the Wizards from his perfect storm.

⦁ Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.