The Washington Wizards have won a playoff series for the first time since 2004-05. That nine-year drought marked one of the longest stretches of inferiority in the NBA, signaling both the past failure and hopeful future of an organization that’s rich in history.
On Tuesday, the Wizards did more than just win a series to end a drought. Washington became more than the second entrant in the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs.
Washington solidified its place as the future of the NBA.
The Long Road Back
In 1977, a Romanian-born swingman named Ernie Grunfeld was selected No. 11 overall in the NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. He’d spent four seasons at the University of Tennessee, teaming with Bernard King and posting career averages of 22.3 points and 6.6 rebounds.
Grunfeld’s strongest claims to fame included the 1977 SEC Player of the Year award and a gold medal as a member of Team USA at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
This propelled him to a nine-year career from 1977 to 1986 as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, Kansas City Kings and New York Knicks. While he never panned out as a professional star, Grunfeld was a reliable and durable player.
Fast forward a few decades and Grunfeld is doing something new. He’s no longer a player, sportscaster or an assistant coach, but instead the president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards
With a carefully crafted and cultivated roster, Grunfeld has built the future of the NBA.
None of those men were All-Stars before joining Grunfeld’s Wizards. All three had multiple appearances as members of Washington’s roster.
That trio dominated the regular season, but never discovered success in the playoffs. That resulted in many labeling Grunfeld’s gamble as a failure, despite its overachievement.
As the momentum crumbled and the wins stopped pouring in, Grunfeld made the decision to draft John Wall No. 1 overall, despite possessing something of a franchise player, Arenas, at his position. Months later, Grunfeld traded Arenas and proved that he was ready to rebuild and learn from the ills of his past.
No longer is Grunfeld handing out massive contracts without acknowledging the need for balance. No longer is he building an elite perimeter without addressing rim protection or interior depth.
Back then, many questioned his job security. Today, the Wizards are the next big thing in the NBA.
You can thank Grunfeld’s patience, prowess, perseverance and ability to learn on the fly for that.
All About Balance
Pass-first point guard? Check. Lights-out scorer at shooting guard? Check. 3-and-D small forward? Check. Floor-spacing power forward with toughness to boot? Check. Two-way center? Check.
That’s what you call balance.
The Wizards have crafted a blend that is rarely seen and often successful in professional sports. Young-and-hungry stars, John Wall and Bradley Beal, are complemented by experienced veterans who are desperate to win a ring, Nene and Marcin Gortat.
Throw in a player who has already won an NBA championship and is just now entering his prime, Trevor Ariza, and you have one of the best starting fives in the league.
In an era in which teams are more concerned with signing a superstar and giving them low-cost help, the Wizards have been methodical. They found their superstars, Wall and Beal, through the draft. They found anchors and support through free agency and the trade market
See: Nene, Gortat and Ariza.
This has resulted in Washington ranking ninth in scoring defense and eighth in assists per game. That balance of high-quality defense and effective ball movement is the perfect combination of traits to establish one thing.
Washington’s greatest strength is not individual prowess. Nor is it elite athleticism.
While they possess a fair share of both, the key to Washington’s success is teamwork, something that cannot be understated in the midst of the Indiana Pacers’ inexplicable collapse.
The sign of a great team, and more specifically, a great organization, is constant improvement. There are loyalties to long-time players and injuries that conflict with that process, but the strongest organizations in the league display an incessant sense of urgency.
Washington is embodying those traits.
The Wizards opened the 2012-13 regular season at 5-28. That horrid stretch of basketball was mostly due to the 33-game injury absence of John Wall, who went from a star-on-the-rise to a player facing adversity.
Once Wall returned, the Wizards went 24-25 to finish the season at 29-53—a nine-win improvement from the previous season.
In 2013-14, the Wizards turned heads by finishing the season at 44-38. Not only was this an increase of 15 wins, but the 44 victories mark Washington’s most since 2004-05.
Not so coincidentally, Washington just secured their first playoff series win since 2004-05.
The true mark of improvement can be found in Wall. Many will point to his tremendous strides as a floor general, posting career-highs in points, assists and steals per game.
The true mark of Wall’s improvement can be found in his shooting. Once a liability when outside of the paint, Wall has gone from converting 12 3-point field goals on 26.7 percent shooting in 2012-13 to 108 3-point field goals on 35.1 percent shooting in 2013-14.
That individual improvement has embodied the Wizards’ constant ruse in efficiency. Whether offensively or defensively, this team is growing and coming together before our very eyes.
The question is, can Grunfeld pull another rabbit out of the hat and keep the Wizards together?
Hurdles for Sustainability
Two of the most critical members of the Wizards’ roster, Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat, are set to become unrestricted free agents. Both could be re-signed for reasonable prices, but the further Washington goes in the playoffs, the higher their price tags will become.
Chances are, the Wizards will only be able to keep one of the two. Fortunately, Grunfeld has put Washington in a strong position financially moving forward.
John Wall is under contract through 2018-19 after signing a five-year deal worth $80 million. Nene is locked up through 2015-16, Bradley Beal is in Washington until after 2015-16 on a club option or when he becomes a restricted free agent in 2016-17.
In other words, the top two and, arguably, the third-best players on the roster are all in it for the long haul.
Martell Webster making more than $5 million could be a concern, but he’s a 39.2 percent shooter from beyond the arc who, paired with top-five pick Otto Porter, provides security at small forward. Neither can be viewed as a safe replacement to Ariza, but they serve as insurance should he leave.
That, paired with his individual value, makes Gortat the must-keep asset.
Gortat has been a force on the boards and a source of locker room levity as a two-way center, making a reasonable $7.23 million. Chances are, he’ll seek money closer to the $10 million range this summer, and the Wizards are likely to retain him.
The trouble is, Beal is due for a massive contract in a few years and that could make Ariza too expensive to re-sign. He could potentially be brought back on a short-term deal with a front-loaded pay setup, but at 28, Ariza has put himself in a position to earn job security and financial comfort.
No matter how underwhelming he was as a rookie, the risk of losing Ariza is why Grunfeld drafted Porter in 2013.
In the end, the Wizards have three cornerstones locked up for the long-term in Wall, Beal and Nene. They have the money to bring back either Gortat and Ariza, and could potentially retain both.
The only question remaining is as follows: are the Wizards built to become the future? Or has the future already arrived?