Courtside

For reasons grounded on both anecdote and fact, Ted Leonsis has been characterized in sports circles as a patient owner. Setting goals and cutting checks, and then letting his handpicked executives do the nitty gritty without handholding from him, are what he does with and for his franchises. Given his deliberate nature, his decision to finally hand Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld the pink slip yesterday was understandably met with surprise — and not in light of the end of the National Basketball Association season being just around the corner.

Perhaps Leonsis wanted to convey an air of immediacy to his cause. Prior to the start of the Wizards’ 2018-19 campaign, he declared 50 wins and a deep postseason run to be the goal. And it wasn’t premised on false hope, either; as with others in management, he looked at the roster he went over the salary cap for and deemed it to be among the best in the East. That said, a spate of injuries and, more importantly, a glaring absence of camaraderie among the players exposed his objective as unrealistic at best. And so came its dismantling, with supposedly vital cogs moved, its cornerstone sidelined for some time to come, and, now, its principal architect sent packing.

In truth, Grunfeld’s departure was inevitable, and telegraphed long before news of the Wizards hiring a third party to cast a wide net for his replacement reached hoops circles last month. After all, he presided over talent management operations that appeared to fuel mediocrity. For all his wheeling and dealing, and for all the willingness of Leonsis to keep splurging at his behest, he produced no better than 49 victories and a second-round playoff in any of his 16 years at the helm. Parenthetically, followers were able to cheer for the red, white, and blue beyond the regular season in only eight of those years.

For Leonsis, Grunfeld’s firing was “tough” but necessary, and, as he explained to scribes he met in a rare visit to the Wizards’ practice facility yesterday, just the first in a series of moves aimed at righting the ship. He accepted responsibility for the failures, and vowed to spend the rest of April listening to any and all quarters on how to best forge ahead. “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,” he 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.”

Which is all well and good. Unfortunately, much of the “money” Leonsis speaks of is already committed — including to five-time All-Star John Wall, whose foot issues required him to go under the knife last February and who will be convalescing from his torn Achilles until late into the next season. Still, there can never be a bad time to do the right thing, and parting ways with Grunfeld, however belated, was the right thing. So is looking ahead. There’s always hope, and, for once, fans are optimistic it will lead to a better — okay, much better — future.

 

Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.