The woebegone Washington Wizards fired longtime president of basketball operations and architect of 15 years of fan frustration Ernie Grunfeld back on April 2, one week before the end of their rotten 2018–19 season. Firing a front office honcho before the end of the season would usually give a team a nice headstart on landing his replacement, but it is now June 18 and the Wizards still have no general manager. In related news, the 2019 NBA Draft is Thursday.
Owner Ted Leonsis has interviewed a few folks for the position. Denver Nuggets executive Tim Connelly turned down a formal offer made on May 19; Rockets vice president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas took a job with the Minnesota Timberwolves; out-of-work former Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks executive Danny Ferry, Oklahoma City Thunder vice president Troy Weaver, and internal guy Tommy Sheppard were also reportedly interviewed, but have not advanced beyond that point. Sheppard is currently holding down the fort as an interim personnel honcho, which is very far from ideal given the fact that free agency starts in less than two weeks.
One possible explanation for the delay in choosing a person to run their basketball operations emerged late last week, when all of Adrian Wojnarowski, David Aldridge, and Wizards beat reporters Fred Katz of The Athletic and Ben Standig of NBC Sports Washington reported that Leonsis was loading up the mother of all offers to recruit none other than Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri. Piecing together the various reports, it seemed like the Wizards were prepared to offer Ujiri something like $10 million a season, for a comfy six years, plus a possible ownership stake in the Monumental Sports and Entertainment Company, which oversees operations of the Wizards and the Washington Capitals.
As reasons to hold off on promoting someone from within Grunfeld’s regime go, waiting for permission from the Raptors to throw a mega-deal at the man behind the team’s ascension to NBA champions is certainly the most impressive. Which is what makes today’s report from Candace Buckner of the Washington Post such a downer. Whether because they’ve already been stiff-armed by the Raptors or stiff-armed by Ujiri, Leonsis has publicly shifted into Actually We Never Wanted Ujiri To Run Our Busted Basketball Operation In The First Place mode:
“We have not commented on the many rumors surrounding potential candidates during this process, but I wanted to make an exception in this case out of respect to the Raptors organization as they celebrate their well-deserved championship,” Leonsis’s statement said. “Any reports that we have interest in Masai Ujiri as a candidate are simply not true, and we have never planned in any way to ask for permission to speak to him during our process.”
Leonsis now says he does not expect to find a person to run the shop until after the start of free agency, which is definitely when you are likely to find the best candidates—after new and important roster moves have already been made according to someone else’s vision. Imagine clarifying for the world that you actually have no interest in hiring the best basketball executive in the business, after you’ve already been rejected by your top candidate.
Having been assured there was never any doomed courtship of Ujiri, we are left to conclude that the Wizards are now halfway through the third month of a candidate search for what Leonsis once described as “the best important open job in all of sports” for the mundane and endlessly depressing reason that their operation is in shambles, and no one worth a damn wants anything to do with it.