Gilbert Arenas is playing basketball in Shanghai these days, nearly 7,500 miles away and several years removed from the place where he electrified fans in Washington with his quirky personality and quick release from anywhere on the floor.
Arenas’s three all-star appearances with the Wizards earned him a six-year, $111 million contract from owner Abe Pollin in the summer of 2008. But a deteriorating knee and a disastrous decision in the locker room forced President Ernie Grunfeld and current owner Ted Leonsis to cut ties and break free of an albatross of a deal that seemingly would’ve financially hamstrung the franchise through 2014.
Grunfeld dealt Arenas to the Orlando Magic in December 2010 for Rashard Lewis and received praise from rival executives for unloading what once seemed immovable. Lewis’s contract came off the books one year earlier than Arenas’s deal and could give the team greater flexibility to rebuild around John Wall.
But nearly two years later, the shadow of Arenas’s monster contract continues to haunt the Wizards. They traded Lewis’s expiring contract — with only $13.7 million guaranteed — and the 46th overall pick to the New Orleans Hornets last June in order to commit $43 million over the next two seasons to Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor.
At the time the Wizards consummated the trade for Ariza and Okafor, Grunfeld stressed the importance of adding veterans to a team littered with young pups. He also emphasized the need to get something for nothing, since the team would’ve otherwise paid Lewis to not play for them. But it appears that the Wizards have turned one expensive blunder into another with Ariza and Okafor both struggling and the team off to a franchise-worst 0-11 start.
Ariza and Okafor account for one-third of a $66 million payroll, the 19th highest in the league. But Coach Randy Wittman has already benched the duo in favor of less-seasoned players at the start of games, and they are often not on the floor with the outcome of the games in doubt.
“It’s tough,” Okafor said, as the Wizards prepare to host the San Antonio Spurs on Monday at Verizon Center. “I’m a competitor, but right now, we’re just trying to get wins and when you’re 0-11, you try to find a way. So I’ve always been a team player and I’m going to do what I can do.”
Okafor is the Wizards’ highest-paid player at $13.5 million this season, but he is off to the worst start of his career. He arrived in Washington averaging a double-double over his first eight seasons in Charlotte and New Orleans, but he is contributing career lows of 7.7 points on 40 percent shooting and 6.1 rebounds. He hasn’t played beyond the third quarter in five games and sat for both overtime periods in the Wizards’ 108-106 loss Saturday against Charlotte.
“I love his experience. I need his experience,” Wittman recently said of Okafor. “But when you’re not playing that game to the level that we need to be playing and I’ve got somebody else sitting there that I feel is going to give me that, I’ve got to go with that. That’s a gut feeling. That’s coaching. That’s all that is.”
On his third team in the past four years, Ariza could probably benefit from playing with Wall, who remains out eight weeks after it was announced that he had a stress injury in his left knee. But with the Wizards lacking a facilitator on offense, Ariza has tried to take it upon himself to do more and the results have been the worst shooting figures of his career. He is connecting on just 32 percent from the floor and 24.2 percent from beyond the three-point line.
“Shot selection is the main thing,” Wittman said recently, when asked in what area he would like to see Ariza improve. “Contested shots is not a good thing for him. He’s not that type of player.”
Ariza’s minutes and production have been up and down and he declined to comment when asked recently if the inconsistent playing time has affected his ability to develop a rhythm. He has been consistent on the defensive end, where he is tied for sixth in the NBA with 2.0 steals per game.
“I want to do everything better,” Ariza said recently. “I want to do everything I can to try to get this team a win.”
Lewis had a forgettable tenure in Washington, averaging 9.7 points in just 60 of a possible 112 games as he dealt with problems in both knees. Now a backup in Miami, Lewis admitted that he probably should’ve played fewer games because he was never healthy.
“It was very frustrating and I forced myself to get out there and play, just because of the amount of money I was making,” said Lewis, who made $22 million last season. “I don’t think it was a good idea to go out there and force myself to play. It really hurt me.”
Realizing that he was simply holding a huge chunk of the salary cap, Lewis knew that his time was up once the season ended — but he was surprised about how the Wizards went about ending his tenure. The Wizards had at their disposal the one-time amnesty provision, which allows teams to pay a player their remaining salary without counting it toward the league’s luxury tax. But they had reserved it for Andray Blatche — who will receive $7.1 million from the Wizards this season.
“I thought I would get amnestied. I didn’t know I would get traded,” said Lewis, who later received a buyout from the Hornets before signing with the Heat.
The Wizards are better off not having to pay Arenas, who was the first player waived through the amnesty provision and can’t find employment with another NBA team before the life of his deal expired. But they had other alternatives to utilize the money that they have now committed to Okafor and Ariza.
Veterans Elton Brand and Luis Scola hit the free agent market last summer through the amnesty provision, and cap space was all that was needed to acquire shooters such as Dorell Wright or Kyle Korver through trades.
The Wizards also could’ve invested more time in developing draft picks Chris Singleton, Jan Vesely and Kevin Seraphin, who stand to lose playing time in the presence of the two veterans.
Okafor and Ariza have player options for next season but exercising them is unlikely since they would have to walk away from considerable amounts of money to become free agents. When their contracts expire, the Wizards will have the flexibility to be active during an attractive 2014 free agent period that will include Wall.
For now, Okafor is still trying to stay patient and positive as the duo continues to adjust. “It builds a lot of mental toughness,” Okafor said. “Never smooth and easy all the time. When it’s not, that’s when you find true character. It’ll turn around.”