The Washington Wizards dismissed longtime personnel chief Ernie Grunfeld (his title was “president of basketball operations” but it was a role broadly analogous to “general manager”) back at the beginning of April. More than two months have passed. The draft is a little over two weeks away. Free agency opens two weeks after that. These are among the busiest times in the NBA calendar for transactions and trades. The Wizards still do not have a general manager. That is not super great.
Does anybody want this job? That’s a different question from whether anyone will take it. The job of running an NBA franchise’s basketball shop is among the most prestigious, highest-paying, and most exclusive jobs in American sports; somebody will take it. The issue is just how far down a list of the people in the world, ranked in order of their qualifications to do the job, one must go to find the name of anyone who’d genuinely be excited at the prospect—whether that name falls closer on the list to, say, mine than to, for example, Jerry West’s.
A related and appallingly hard to answer question is: Why would anybody with any other high-level basketball executive job prospects want this particular job? As a basketball team, and as an assortment of contract commitments and fungible assets, the Wizards’ condition generously can be described as “apocalyptic.” They weren’t good or functional or cohesive enough to keep their shit together even before the events of this disastrous past season, when Grunfeld traded away half of the team’s not-great young-ish core (2015 first-round pick Kelly Oubre and 2013 third overall pick Otto Porter) for, in total, a trio of expiring contracts and a protected second-round pick, and declining 28-year-old all-star guard John Wall suffered an Achilles injury that may well have ended the productive part of his career... some six months before the beginning of the four-year supermax extension he signed in 2017. They finished with the sixth-worst record in the league, and then the draft lottery dropped them to the ninth pick of a thin and top-heavy incoming class. The club has committed some $90 million against next season’s projected $116 million salary cap to just five players, and four of them are Wall, washed-up 33-year-old Dwight Howard, unplayable 32-year-old Ian Mahinmi, and second-year wing Troy Brown Jr., who spent nearly half his rookie season in the G-League. It’s real bad.
The fifth player under contract for next year, of course, is all-star shooting guard Bradley Beal, who gamely competed his way through this past lost season; who has blossomed into a fabulous high-usage scorer; and who represents the sum total of hope that things could be any better than “nightmarish” in Washington at any point in the foreseeable future. The question for the franchise—for the next general manager, that is to say—is exactly what form that hope takes. Beal turns 26 in a couple weeks; he’s due $56 million in salary over the next couple seasons before he can hit free agency in the summer of 2021. He’s too old, too good, and too expensive to make sense as a cornerstone for the kind of years-long, draft-based, tank-and-rebuild roster overhaul typically prescribed for teams without any near-term hope of competing for anything. But the Wizards definitely have no near-term hope of competing for anything: Wall won’t return to the court until the back half of next season at the earliest, if ever, and seems very unlikely to ever be more than a shadow of his former self, and his mammoth contract forecloses on any realistic possibility of using free agency to build a competitive team around Beal in the meantime. All of which seems to point, one way or another, to Beal leaving the Wizards, if not as a free agent two years from now then because he can impact the club’s future more as a trade commodity than he can as a basketball player.
Hey, speaking of which! The Los Angeles Lakers, desperate to find a star veteran complement for LeBron James, are rumored have their eye on Beal as a possible secondary target should the Pelicans rebuff their best offer in July’s inevitable Anthony Davis trade fracas. The likeliest return, a combination of L.A.’s fourth overall pick and some number of young players (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart), in combination with that ninth pick Washington “won” in the lottery, presents the Wizards with as short and direct a path as they’re likely to find to the establishment of some kind of young core they can pitch to their flatlining fanbase. That’s a window that won’t stay open forever; if the Wizards don’t have a GM for the Lakers to make a deal with, they will make a deal with one of the 29 teams that do.
All of which is to say: By the day, as the simple passage of time closes near-term opportunities to reshape the team and the organization around it, the unoccupied job becomes smaller, more defined (burdened) by the wreckage Grunfeld left behind, and thus less appealing to anybody skilled and smart enough to have other choices. It’s already impossible that any possible new hire—at whatever job title owner Ted Leonsis will attach to the gig—could truly be settled in and acclimated to the place in time for the draft. It seems out of the question that the club’s new head personnel honcho will have time to, for example, overhaul the front office, or evaluate and/or replace the coaching or scouting or training staffs, prior to the scheduled arrival of important decisions about such matters as, say, who will be on the basketball team next season. Who wants to parachute in and make draft picks on their second day on the job? Who’ll find the position more appealing after the big trades are made than before?
Nuggets executive Tim Connelly, who worked for the Wizards around the turn of the millennium, interviewed for the job and appeared close to taking it; then, proving himself sane and rational, he elected to stay with Denver, who won 54 games and a playoff series and have a dynamite core of young stars in place, including MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. Danny Ferry, who left the Atlanta Hawks’ front office in 2015 in the aftermath of a racism scandal there and has only held advisor and interim positions around the league since then, interviewed for the job in April. In the Washington Post, Candace Buckner floats the possibility that the delay in hiring somebody could indicate owner Ted Leonsis waiting until after the Finals, so that he can interview candidates from the Golden State Warriors and/or Toronto Raptors, definitionally two of the healthiest franchises in the sport; some local sports goobers have indulged the very funny fantasy that Toronto’s Masai Ujiri might leave the stable, fantastically successful team he built to come toil in what’s likely the single worst situation in the league. Other candidates include somebody named Tommy Sheppard, who apparently has been handling the job on an interim basis, and somebody else named Troy Weaver, who could be literally anyone.
There are only 30 NBA general manager positions, they all pay extravagantly well, and holding one of them often seems to function as a lifetime ticket to the league’s front-office job carousel. The Wizards will fill this position, eventually and inevitably, and maybe that bare fact offers some small comfort to despairing fans. And who knows—with any luck, the choice to accept the job might be the only reason to suspect that whoever takes it is an idiot.