Wizards Marcin Gortat

Washington Wizards free agent center Marcin Gortat.

(Updated 7/6/2014) Washington Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld can’t seem to get it right. Retaining free agent center Marcin Gortat was definitely a must for the franchise going into this summer but handing the 30-year-old a five-year, $60 million contract in what could potentially be a damning deal for the future of the franchise raised eyebrows around the District July 1. Achieving their best finish in decades last season, Washington was charged full of momentum and headed for a summer where two of their top five players (Gortat and defensive specialist Trevor Ariza) were slated to hit free agency. And after years of mediocrity, it was expected that one of the two, if not both, free agents would be resigned to carry that momentum into next season, but just not at this expense.

Strong finishes are a free agent’s dream because they typically end in hefty contracts given out for a year’s performance. But for a center who’s never averaged over 16 points per game in a season or ever made more than $8 million in a season, dishing out a guaranteed $12 million per year for the next five years for a 30-year-old player set to exit his prime is quite simply a typical Grunfeld move. The same man who let Gilbert Arenas negotiate his own $100 million-plus deal fresh off a devastating knee injury and the same GM that continues to commit draft blunder after draft blunder really needs to be reeled in. The Wizards were already going into the summer armed with perhaps the best young backcourt in the league — John Wall and Bradley Beal. Considering the team had sizable cap space for a summer where names like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh and Greg Monroe are all free agents, resigning Gortat two days after the start of free agency was another flat out panic move by Grunfeld.

If signing Arenas or acquiring oft-injured forward Nene and his $13 million a year salary weren’t telltale signs then this one definitely makes it known that the general manager position in Washington, D.C. should be available. Washington may have just cost themselves a chance in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes for 2016 and handcuffed themselves to a position where they’ll likely be stagnant before they actually improve. Gortat’s retention was vital, no doubt. But the Wizards knew beforehand how important the center position is to this team when they traded for Gortat last October in the wake of the news that former center Emeka Okafor would miss the entire season with a neck injury. Perhaps, Grunfeld could’ve struck quickly to re-sign Gortat to a modest three-year extension before the center’s value skyrocketed over the course of the season, but that would’ve been too smart an idea. The fact that Grunfeld waited until the season was over to put Gortat, salary wise, in the same field as Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, Al Horford, DeAndre Jordan and Serge Ibaka is extremely troubling.

A disappointing second round exit left a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of players and fans because the Wizards probably could’ve beaten their second round nemesis, the Indiana Pacers, if the club hadn’t succumbed to too many brain freezes throughout the series. But the NBA Eastern Conference will undoubtedly be better next season as teams like Boston, Atlanta and Charlotte continue to improve while the conference’s top two teams in the Pacers and the Miami Heat are expected to return core players next year. The Wizards were armed with cap space, an attractive backcourt and the Nation’s Capital as selling points for the summer. But what they’re set to walk away with is enough to discourage any Wizards fans’ hopes for next year.

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO