Ernie Grunfeld talks to the media
On the end of the season: “I think right now we are all disappointed on how the season ended for us. We played a very exciting series against Cleveland. I just finished meeting with most of our players and they all feel like we should still be playing -- and that’s good. The series hurt them and bothered them. At the same time, it gave the players added motivation for next year. We are very excited for what the future holds for us. I think the players are going to use this series as extra motivation to come back and be ready for next season. Our players understand what’s expected of them. They are very competitive and they have a lot of pride, and I think they showed that with the resiliency they showed after some tough losses this year.”
I still believe we were the better team than the Cavs, and look what they’ve gone on to do against Detroit. Say what you will, but this team as constructed could have done some damage in these playoffs (at least until we played the Heat…)
On his goals: “When I first got here we said our goal was to become perennial playoff contenders. We just made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 18 years. I think we have put ourselves in a position where we have achieved some of those goals. I think the nucleus and the core of this team is set going forward, where we can remain competitive. We have a very good core of young players. This is still a very good, young team. I think we learned a lot from this playoff experience and our players still have a lot of room for growth.”
It's crucial that Zards fans maintain perspective on how far we've come in just 2 years. Let’s take things one goal at a time. Goal #1 was to become a perennial playoff team. Check. Now we have to build our young nucleus into a championship contender. It doesn’t happen overnight.
On the focus of the off-season: “The main focus we are going to have for this off-season is to have our player development in place. That is the only thing we can control. We can’t control what type of trades there may be out there or things of that nature, but player development is in our own hands and our players still have room for growth. I think overall we are heading in the right direction. I think this year’s team has shown that when we play up to our abilities we can compete with anyone in the league. We have had some big wins over the top teams in the league this season. We have shown that we can play at the highest level. I am excited about next year and I am excited about the future of this franchise.”
A basketball skill-set is not a static thing. People underrate development, both on an individual basis and a team basis. Most basketball players don’t peak until their late 20’s. And basketball teams only improve as teammates get used to playing with each other, learning each others strengths and weaknesses, etc.
On the biggest area for improvement: “We all know, the coaching staff and the players included, that we have to become a better defensive team. I think everybody realizes that and it is something that we have to continue to work at. Defense is a team thing. If you look at the Detroit Pistons or some of the other better defensive teams you have to play overall team defense. If you are naming individual defensive players there isn’t a player in this league that is going to shut down another player, except for maybe Bruce Bowen. Besides that you have to help your teammates. I think we have several players on this team that have the ability to be very good team defensive players. Caron and Antonio have shown the ability to be good defenders. Jared is a defensive player and we have shot blockers back there. Everybody has to improve overall, individually, and from a team standpoint. I think the coaches and the players realize that. Eddie has said that several of the players, like Antawn and Gilbert, have said that if we are going to make another significant move we have to improve defensively.”
Our team defense breaks down for 2 reasons: individual weak links and incessant switching.
First of all, Gilbert and Antawn play HORRENDOUS on the ball defense, which puts far too much pressure on the rest of the team to rotate and cover for them. Antawn just doesn’t have the lateral quickness to stay in front of 3’s or the strength to bang with 4’s, which is why I think he’ll be more suited to an instant-offense role off the bench as he moves into his 30’s. Gilbert on the other hand, SHOULD be an excellent defender. I just don’t think he focuses on it, or necessarily realizes that he’s not playing up to his potential. Hopefully this will come with age and maturation.
And then of course, there’s the incessant switching. When you already have weak individual links in the defense, and then you switch on every single screen, it further increases the amount of scrambling we end up doing. We give up an insane amount of easy buckets due to confusion on a switch or a horrendous mismatch created by switching. The switching also enables guys like Gilbert to feel comfortable laying off a defender and sagging under screens. It promotes defensive passivity. We need to change our defensive mindset, by locking up man-to-man and fighting through screens. Take responsibility for your man and lock him down. Defense is as much a mindset as a skill. Switching should only be employed as a secondary strategy to throw different looks at an offense.
On the future: “I think we’re getting closer to where we want to be, and I think we’ve shown that we can compete against the best teams. We can go win a road game in Phoenix or win a road game in Denver, and beat San Antonio and beat Detroit in Detroit. I think that one of the things that we have to do next year is play more consistent basketball through the course of the season. But when you make changes it takes time for the cohesiveness to come together.”
I would like to think that our inconsistency in this manner (beating champs, losing to chumps) is entirely due to immaturity. It’s so easy to forget how young we are. As a team we need to learn to come to play every night, and our best player (Gilbert) needs to learn how to help the team win when his shot’s not falling. He needs to be better at getting his teammates involved and taking over the game in other ways than burying 3’s.
On contending for a Championship: “It doesn’t happen over night. You get knocked around a little bit before you start knocking everyone else around a little bit. It depends on how our players develop. It depends on how much we improve as a unit. Just because you have some core players that you feel comfortable with, doesn’t mean that you don’t tweak the roster a little bit to improve in certain areas. That’s what we do, but having said that, I feel comfortable with what we have and we’re confident that when these players are hitting on all cylinders, we can compete with anybody in the league.”
It doesn’t happen overnight, unless you’re LeBron James.
On making the playoffs again: “We wanted to be a playoff team. You don’t go from not being in the playoffs for four or five years to winning a Championship overnight. It’s a process. You have to build it. You have to get a core group together, and then you have to keep that core group together. You just have to pay your dues in playoff type situations. Sometimes they aren’t pleasant. This was not a pleasant series for us but I think it’s a series that we can learn from and will learn from. We put ourselves in a position to advance, but unfortunately some things did not go our way down the stretch. I’ve never seen a playoff series where you lose three one-point games all on buzzer beaters, but those are the kind of things that we can’t let happen in the future. I think our players learned from that and hopefully we won’t repeat those things next year. We’ll give Cleveland credit. They made the big shots when they had to, and from a fans standpoint, it was an incredibly exciting series -- hard fought, exciting plays, a lot of energy, a lot of intensity, and hopefully we can play Cleveland again in the future. That’s the way rivalries are built. Rivalries are not built in the regular season. They are built in the playoffs.”
I’m a little nervous about our tendency to say: “We should have won this series, but we just missed shots at the buzzer.” When you’re going up against a great player like LeBron, you can’t give him the opportunity to win games at the end, and you can’t give the refs the opportunity to take the game away from you either. You have to go out and win the game in the first 47 minutes. We had control of several games in this series, only to let the lead slip away before falling to LeBron and the refs at the buzzer.
On Eddie Jordan: “I think Eddie has done a terrific job here. We went to the playoffs each of the last two years. The players have improved. We fought hard every night, and I think he has done a very good job for us.”On Eddie Jordan’s contract: “We’ll have internal discussions about that. We’ll sit with Mr. Pollin as the summer progresses and we’ll have discussions about that. We’ll have discussions about our players and we’ll have discussions about what direction this team is going. There is no timeframe for anything. Right now we are still hurting and smarting from the playoff elimination and I think that’s healthy. All of these issues will take care of themselves as the summer goes along and we’ll continue to have our internal discussions.”
I really can’t get any kind of read on what Grunfeld’s thinking regarding EJ. Part of me says that he’s going to renew his contract, but hes just being Grunfeld, not revealing his hand to the media, being patient, waiting to see how things shake out this off-season. Or maybe he’s planning on replacing him with a guy of his choosing (Pollin hired EJ before he hired Grunfeld), so he’s just biding his time to see what the coaching market looks like? I don’t know, but personally I would reward EJ for taking this team from Hawks/Raptors territory to the playoff promised land, and helping Gilbert turn into an All-Pro, Antawn into an All-Star, and Caron into a potential All-Star.
On the team: “I’m comfortable with what we have because I think we’ve shown that we can compete at the highest level – against anybody. Having said that, you always look for things to see if you can make your team better. I think we’ve shown in our three years here that if the right opportunity presents itself that we’re not afraid to pull the trigger. The only thing that we can control is what we have under our roof currently. I feel good about what we have under our roof currently and we have to take a very aggressive stand in terms of developing those players and making them better and making them more cohesive. It will help having another year under our belt to learn each other. This playoff run wasn’t just about the playoffs itself, but in fighting to get to the playoffs and fighting to get home court advantage and fighting to get the best possible seed. This group went through a lot of tough times together. They played some big, big must win games – not only in the playoffs but in the regular season, and I think that’s going to be beneficial to this group in the future.”
Ernie’s starting to sound like a broken record, but I find it reassuring that he’s so adamant about taking the prudent long-term strategy: be patient, plan on building around our core, but don’t be afraid to pull the trigger on the right opportunity.
On the core: “Gilbert Arenas has made great strides in the last three years. He has become a real superstar in this league and everybody has acknowledged that. He is a great competitor. Players like Caron (Butler), Antawn (Jamison), and Antonio (Daniels) have provided a lot for us and they can still get better. We have young role players in Jared Jeffries, Brendan (Haywood), Etan (Thomas) and Andray Blatche and Donell Taylor -- who are both very young. We feel like this core can stay together for quite some time. Obviously we are always looking for ways to improve and tweak it, and the draft is coming up, so we will see what that holds for us.”
Average age of Ernie’s core (as listed above): 25
On Caron Butler: “Caron brings a lot to the table. He’s an extremely well rounded player. He can do a lot of different things out there on the floor. He’s very tough and hard nosed. He has a swagger about him -- a confidence that is very important. That rubs off on his teammates. And he fills up the stats sheet. He gets his points and rebounds. He had 20 rebounds in that last contest – that’s unheard of for a small forward, but he’s that type of player. He can get his own shots. He gets steals and he gets assists and I think if he can continue to improve, he has All-Star potential.”
Prediction: The next non-Gilbert Wizards All-Star won’t be Antawn, it will be Caron. Kwame for Caron was an absolute STEAL.
2 key indicators:
1) Caron’s improvement as his first season with the Zards went on:
February – 17 pts on 47% shooting, 7 boards, 1.5 steals
March – 19 pts on 47% shooting, 7 boards, 1.5 steals
April – 23.5 pts on 51% shooting, 9 boards, 3 steals
2) Larry Hughes’ year-to-year improvement as he got more comfortable playing in EJ’s offense with Gilbert and Antawn. I expect similar improvement from Caron, since so much of our offense is reading and reacting based on a) the defense and b) the movements of your teammates:
Hughes 03/04 – 19 pts on 40% shooting, 5 rebounds, 2 assists
Hughes 04/05 – 22 pts on 43% shooting, 6 rebounds, 5 assists
As I’ve said before, Jarvis could be a real key for the Zards next year. Losing Caron for 5 games at the end of the season really shined a spotlight on how lackluster our scoring punch is beyond the Big 3. If we let Jared Jeffries go, Jarvis could even wind-up starting for us on the wing next to Butler. At the very least, he’ll be one of our first options off the bench and a primary scorer in our 2nd unit.
On Jared Jeffries: “Jared is a restricted free agent which means that we can match any offer that he may have. We had discussions with Jared about an extension last summer but we could not come to any kind of terms. At the appropriate time we will sit down with him and his representatives and see where we are. I think Jared showed improvement this season. He is a very versatile player and a very solid contributor for us.”
I believe Ernie when he claims to have no idea how the Jeffries situation will play out. Jared obviously has value to our team due to his work ethic, team-first attitude, and versatility, but Ernie WILL NOT overpay to keep him. I’m sure that Ernie has an exact price in his mind for what Jeffries is worth to the team without jeopardizing our future cap flexibility (much like with Larry Hughes last year), but due to the fact that we can match any offer, I am sure that he will let the market set the price for Jared. Given that this year’s free agent class is one of the worst in recent memory, and Jared is 24-years-old and 6’11”, I am willing to bet that someone will sign him to an offer sheet that’s higher than we’re prepared to match.
On the frontcourt: “I think our big people had some success – and we’d like to see more consistency from them. That is one of the toughest positions in this league to fill. If you look around the league, I think the game has changed drastically over the last five or six years. Very few teams have dominant big men. You might have two or three low-post dominant players in the league – Shaq, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming – after that, players become more perimeter oriented. I think the game has changed because of the zone. If you look at some of the best teams in the league, like Dallas and Phoenix, they didn’t have any kind of low post presence to speak of this season. Brendan Haywood had some good moments playing against Ilgauskas. He neutralized Ilgauskas in the playoffs and Ilgauskas was really their second option. For us, that was a nice performance from that standpoint. I think he has room for growth. Etan had a lot of injuries last year. He had some situations that he had to deal with and I think he has the opportunity to provide some good things for us. We all know that the strength of our ballclub, especially from an offensive standpoint, comes from the perimeter from Gilbert, Antawn and Caron. They are the highest scoring trio in the league and there is a lot to be said for that. Our offense comes through them, but we do need more from our big people up front and I think that the players that we have, have the ability to improve and to get better. We didn’t have a real problem in the regular season as far as rebounding, but I don’t think anybody questions that from a defensive standpoint we have to do a better job overall protecting the paint.”
Ernie makes an excellent point that the game is changing in terms of big men. That’s why I think we should trade Haywood now, to a team that doesn’t necessarily recognize the decreased value of a traditional 7-foot sloth. He’s just 26, his contract is extremely reasonable, and GMs like Isiah Thomas and Billy Knight are still running teams (into the ground). There are two kinds of big men we should focus on in the draft, trades, and free agency:
1) High-post jump-shooters:
a. Why? It will open up our offense far more than a traditional post scoring threat. The Princeton O is designed to set-up high and free up the baseline for backdoor cuts, lay-ups, and attacking perimeter scorers. A jump-shooting big man would draw opposing shot-blockers out of the paint, and make Gilbert, Caron, Antawn, and AD that much more effective.
b. Who? Brad Miller, Primoz Brezec, Joakim Noah, Marcus Camby, Mehmet Okur, Eddie Griffin, Zach Randolph, David West, Rasheed Wallace, Troy Murphy, Brian Cook, Channing Frye, Kevin Pittsnogle
2) Athletic big guys who run the floor, rebound, and finish at the rim:
a. Why? They fit in well with our running game. They can get up and down the floor with Gilbert, Caron, and AD, and they can get their points by finishing on the break-up, following up missed shots when our guards attack, and tracking down long rebounds off missed perimeter jumpers.
b. Who? Marcus Camby, Tyson Chandler, Stromile Swift, Chris Wilcox, Nene, Dan Gadzuric, Hakim Warrick, Drew Gooden, Eddie Griffin, Anderson Varejao, Darko, Jason Maxiell, Ronny Turiaf
On competition for playing time: “I’m glad that players aren’t happy when they’re benched because that tells me that they care enough to get their positions back. This is a competitive situation and the coach is going to put the players out there that he feels is going to help him win the most. I think it was a healthy competition during the season between Brendan and Etan. Etan started at the end of the season a little bit and Brendan started most of the year. Brendan is a professional. He works hard and he is going to show steady improvement. He is only 26 years old, as is Etan, and they still have plenty of room for growth.”
I’ve said it a million times this season… we are a much better team with Etan or Ruffin in there (or even with Jeffries at the 5) letting the Big 3 take the shots, focusing on rebounding position and running the floor, than we are with Big Wood posting-up and taking 8-foot fade-aways.
On ways to improve: “We have our first round pick this year and we have our second round pick. Last year we only had a second round pick and we got Andray Blatche -- who we feel has a lot of potential. This is going to be a very important summer for him and a very important summer for Donell Taylor and Peter Ramos to see what they can do and what they can give us. We’re going to spend a lot of time with them. They are going to be playing in summer league. They are going to be here working out – working on their individual skills, getting stronger, getting in condition. I think that for those that saw those young players play, they had some real good moments. Obviously they need more playing time and they need to be part of the mix. They need to get their confidence level up and I think that those players have a chance to be solid NBA players.”
This is a big summer for Blatche. He has as much potential as anyone in last year’s draft; I honestly believe that. I’d put him up there with Bogut, Williams, Williams, Paul, Villanueva, Frye, Bynum, and Green. How many guys in the league at Blatche’s size have his combination of skill and athleticism? I want Blatche to show this off-season that he’s willing to work to improve his game and earn a spot in next year’s rotation.
On potential additions in the off-season: “I think we’ve shown that we’re not afraid to pull the trigger, but the Yao Mings and Shaquilles don’t just grow on trees and plop into your hands that easily. To get something really good, you have to give up something really good also. If we were going to get one of those types of players, another General Manager isn’t just going to hand me something on a silver platter. We want to improve in every area, and I think we have people in place to do the job.”
It's so nice to finally have a GM who knows what he's doing!!