Ernie Grunfeld: “We want to be a better team this year and we want to compete for a possible playoff spot”

June 22, 2012 – 9:00 am by Chris Fedor

Despite finishing this past season with one of the worst records in the NBA yet again, the Washington Wizards appear to have shifted their focus when it comes to building the team. While there is still a ton of youth on the roster and the Wizards have the third overall pick to find another young running mate for their franchise player, John Wall, they have made some trades over the last couple of months to add some veterans to a roster that was in desperate need of some leadership. It wasn’t long ago when the Wizards were appearing on the “Not Top 10” and had a whole bunch of misfits on the roster, but the additions of Nene, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor show that Washington wants to win now and there is a plan in place to try to make that happen. Whether it does or not is a completely different story and John Wall’s growth as a player will go a long way towards answering that question.

Ernie Grunfeld joined 106.7 The Fan in Washington D.C. with LaVar and Dukes to talk about the trade the team made to acquire Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor, how important it is to build a winning culture given how young the team is, whether the team is in a win-now basis, and whether he has put a timetable on when he would like to see the Wizards win.

On the trade that went down the other day that brought Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza to Washington:

“We had talked about this a little bit, not specific players, but sort of these players toward the trade deadline and nothing materialized. This time of year you have a lot of conversations with a lot of different teams and it kind of came back around to us. We thought this was something that would be helpful for us because we wanted to add some more veterans to our roster and Rashard (Lewis) had a contract that had a very hefty buyout in it and we had elected to go in a different direction. If we bought him out it would’ve cost us 13.7 million and that wouldn’t have left us with any cap room really. We needed some players. When this opportunity came around for us where we can add two very solid veteran players, young veterans too, Ariza is 26 and Okafor is 29, Okafor has averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds in his career and we’re not necessarily looking for that kind of production but he brings a great presence in the locker room, he’s extremely professional and it gives us another big man up front and it gives us a nice rotation with Nene and Kevin Seraphin and then we were looking for a veteran wing also, a versatile wing player and Ariza provides that for us. He’s very versatile, he can guard two positions, he can run the floor very well, he’s a very good defender, he’s been on a championship team and I think they both have great character and that’s something we’re really trying to add to this team. I think it was evident last year when we added Nene, what a positive influence he had on our young players and I think these players will also have a very positive effect in the locker room. We still will have one of the youngest teams in the league after we make these draft picks next week. We have two picks obviously and after we get these players and sign them we will have nine players on this roster who are first, second or third year players. I think the addition of these two veterans along with Nene last year is going to provide some really nice leadership for those young players.”

How important it is for the Wizards to build a winning culture:

“Obviously you played and you know what locker rooms are like and attitudes can shift very easily. You want to have your players, not only John (Wall) but all of our young players, be in an environment where losing is important and you need veteran players to show you that and you need veteran players to do the little things. We’re trying to get players that will sacrifice for the benefit of the team. We’re trying to build a team here of unselfish players who care about winning and losing and that did go into bringing in players from winning situations and players that are unselfish players.”

If the Wizards have a win-now mentality:

“We do want to win. I mean we want to be able to compete on a nightly basis. We have not gone away from the core of the youth. Like I said we have nine players on the roster who are going to be first, second or third year players. We want to keep that young core but that young core will get into bad habits if they don’t have a chance to win. If they take it all upon themselves, players tend to get into bad habits doing it that way. I think veteran leadership is very important. Everybody saw that last year when we did get a guy like Nene who was out on the court and producing. We had other veterans like Mo Evans and Roger Mason, who also helped along those lines. We feel like these guys can instill a sense of pride and confidence where if we play up to our abilities and we improve we can be competitive on a nightly basis and I think we got a little bit of a taste of that towards the end of last season and that’s something that we need to build on. As far as cap space is concerned, if we didn’t do this deal and we just buy out Rashard, as I said we would only have three million dollars this year in cap space. If you look at the free agent list out there it’s not a very good year for free agents. There are a couple of good names out there but they’re restricted which means if you sign them their home teams can match any offer. It’s very seldom that you see a restricted free agent move teams if the team wants to keep them. I don’t think that’s going to hurt us this year. Next year we will have expiring contracts of both of these players which sometimes have value to certain teams but this way we get two players that contribute and that can be part of our rotation and two players that have been starters for many years at a high level. We feel good from that standpoint.”

Whether there is a timetable for when he wants the Wizards to be a winner:

“We want to be a better team this year and we want to compete for a possible playoff spot. Now how that comes around only time will tell how the young players continue to develop and how everybody meshes together. We got a taste of winning a little bit and I think our players got a taste of winning last year and they liked it. I think they played hard and I think they’re working hard this offseason already. One of the other things that happened last year was we had a lockout and we had so many young players on the team that we were not able to work with any of them. I think the lockout also affected not just us, but a lot of the young teams around the league. We want to be better next year, we want to be more competitive but at the same time we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we are trying to still build through the draft and we have not given up any of our young assets. We’re trying to develop as many assets as we can. Somewhere down the road maybe we can put together two or three of these young assets with a bigger salary and maybe get a better player. Those are all opportunities that may come to us down the road. For the time being we felt we needed some more veterans.”

Listen to Ernie Grunfeld on 106.7 the Fan in Washington D.C. here

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