In a sense, Leonsis's decision was correct. A maximum contract for Harden likely would have pushed the Wizards into luxury tax territory next season. It's entirely reasonable for a team owner to avoid paying the luxury tax. It's not being cheap, it's just good business. Especially since a smartly managed team can compete for championships while controlling costs.
But, the only reason Leonsis was "correct" was the Wizards cataclysmically stupid offseason -- specifically, trading Rashard Lewis for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza.
Let's backtrack. When the offseason started this summer, Washington had a clear path creating the cap flexibility necessary to acquire several young players with considerable talent. It would have cost $37.1 million over the next three seasons to clear away Lewis and Andray Blatche, but it would have given the team cap room sufficient to pursue an array of options while remaining beneath the luxury tax threshold.
Those options included doing what New Orleans did with Washington's cap room: trading for Ryan Anderson, a young PF who rebounds and knocks down threes like they're layups. Or trading for Harden. Or signing two or three lower cost free agents such as Louis Williams or Danny Green. Or picking up Elton Brand or Brendan Haywood in the amnesty draft. Or other variations -- there were many possibilities.
But, wow, $37.1 million -- that's a lot of money. Understandable that Leonsis wouldn't want to just throw it away, right? Well, consider what the previous owner, Abe Pollin, did about a decade ago.
Pollin, long lampooned as a cheapskate, had opened the checkbook only to have virtually every move backfire. When Michael Jordan bought in and took over the front office, he was faced with a crummy, expensive roster. He got Pollin to spend $31 million over three seasons to make 7 players go away and give the Wizards cap flexibility. Those 7 players: Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland, Loy Vaught, Dennis Scott, Michael Smith, Lorenzo Williams and George McCloud.
I'm sure Jordan attempted to make trades to get "something" for these dead assets, but ultimately concluded that the best move was to simply pay the price for the mistakes and move on.
Adjusted for inflation, the $31 million in 2003 money is about $39 million in today's money.
Now, Jordan and Pollin ended up largely squandering that newfound flexibility with new bad contracts, but that's poor execution of a good plan -- not a problem with the plan.
Now think how sad it is that Michael Jordan -- the guy who drafted two of the biggest busts in league history (Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison) -- ]actually looks good in comparison to Leonsis and Grunfeld.
Here's a point I keep coming back to. While the Wizards were trading for Okafor and Ariza, giving away a draft pick and cap room, bypassing the free agent market and rejecting a trade for Harden, Leonsis was publicly congratulating the team's brass for for their cleverness.
Presented with assets that could be transmogrified into a young, skilled, competitive team, the Leonsis and Grunfeld literally played the situation as badly as it could be played...and thought they were winning.
And don't come at me with any "hindsight is 20/20" junk -- I said when they trade for Nene that it was a bad move. I said when they traded for Okafor and Ariza that it was a bad move.
With patience, good talent evaluation, and smart management, a team in the Wizards' position could have acquired several good young players and grown into a title contender over the next 2-3 seasons. That's not going to happen with this group.
If everything goes right, if everyone gets healthy and plays well, the team could be mediocre. Maybe. For perhaps two years, and then whoever's running the team at that point will want to detonate it and rebuild again.
At this point, I'm sitting here wondering why it is that this story is so galling. And it's a couple things. First, Harden is exactly the kind of player the Wizards should have been targeting. NBA players generally peak between ages 25-27 and then maintain to age 30-31 when they start to decline. Harden is 23. In other words, he's likely to get better. And, his team can reasonably anticipate another 7-8 seasons of quality production.
Second, the team's situation was entirely foreseeable. I could see the cap trap they were setting for themselves using publicly available information and a spreadsheet. I could predict that they were buying the wrong end of Nene's career because of player aging studies that can easily be found online.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Leonsis was the guy who was supposed to fix all this. He was the smart businessman who would usher in an era of skilled, data-driven management. He was the guy who would fundamentally change the franchise's trajectory and point it toward being a perennial contender. It is a crushing disappointment to see the continued ineptitude.
For awhile, I've thought the problem was Grunfeld. At this point, I've given up trying to separate Leonsis and Grunfeld. They're a partnership -- joined at the hip. It's clear that Leonsis is deeply involved in the team's operations. The obvious move -- firing Grunfeld and bringing in a new front office -- should have been done years ago. Instead he got an extension.
Ultimately, the team's management blunders belong to the man at the top of the organizational chart, and that's Leonsis. Either he doesn't share the same goals that fans do (winning) despite what he says publicly, or he's just that clueless when it comes to running an NBA team.
Neither option is flattering. And neither option gives me much hope for the team's prospects on the court.