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A Time for Urgency, But Not for Panic

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

CLEVELAND

Okay, it's not exactly on par with Kobe Bryant demanding that the Lakers trade him, but Gilbert Arenas's pronouncement the other day that he plans to opt out of his $65 million contract next summer and test the free agent waters is a pretty big deal in Wizard-land.

And instead of being the first step in some doomsday scenario, it could be exactly what both sides need to make sure the Wizards are good enough soon enough for Arenas to want to stay put and for the Wizards to feel compelled to reward him.

For starters, every ballplayer in the prime of his life who's worth a darn would do exactly what Arenas is doing for business reasons. I didn't major in math, but clearly $100 million is a lot more than $65 million.

Arenas is working under a $65 million deal now, and could re-sign for as much as $100 million with the Wizards, but only if he opts out of his current contract. I don't want to hear about why a ballplayer should be satisfied with $65 million when we wouldn't hold any investor or CEO or developer to the same standards.

Arenas telling The Post's Ivan Carter, "To me, it's just a smarter business decision," isn't just good business, it's sound and necessary business, exactly the kind of advice Warren Buffet is probably giving his new buddy LeBron James in their friendship sessions. Ballplayers, particularly young black ones lacking in formal education, have spent decades making bad financial decisions. Arenas, while he is certainly assuming some risk, would be making the right one. As a three-time all-star who is 25 years old, this is close to no-brainer territory.

As for the basketball part of this, it's time for the Wizards and Arenas to have a catalyst. It's time to jump-start this process. The team and its star player have been doing a nice little dance the past three years. They've made the playoffs three straight years, Arenas has become a perennial all-star and that's been just fine playing in the low-pressure environment of Washington, where the team was so bad for so long the populace will settle for the bare minimum: one round in the playoffs.

It's time for more. And the possibility that Arenas, clearly the team's best player, might go elsewhere could be just the thing to turn up the heat on both parties to have a greater sense of urgency to get going now.

Arenas, coming off what is considered minor left knee surgery, had better have a great season if he's betting on his game to make him a franchise player.

The Wizards, still in need of post play and defense, might feel the pressure to assemble the necessary pieces around Arenas before he can walk.

Turning up the heat on everybody might be a pretty good thing.

And if Arenas doesn't play well enough to impress the Wizards, Ernie Grunfeld can go in another direction, let Arenas walk or trade him to improve the team. If Arenas has another 30-point-per-game, all-star season and the Wizards don't want to pony up, then he can see what the market will bear.

The panic position to take is that Arenas is firing an opening salvo at Wizards management, a la Bryant in Los Angeles, that this is his first step toward the door. But when Arenas said, "My intentions are not to leave," I take him at his word.

Arenas is smart enough to look around the league and see how good his situation is in Washington. As a Hall of Fame coach told me yesterday morning, Arenas isn't just in a good situation, he's in a near-perfect one. He's playing in an offensive system that is well-suited to his skills. Arenas is a shoot-first lead guard, not a traditional playmaker, and Eddie Jordan's offense is where he ought to be. Also, he has two teammates -- all-star Caron Butler and recent former all-star Antawn Jamison -- who understand and even embrace the concept of taking a secondary role in support of the star.

Butler and Jamison know how to play off Arenas and are perfectly happy to do so.

Ask Kobe if he'd like to be able to say that. There are only a handful of teams that could seamlessly incorporate Arenas and his abilities and temperament into a winning situation. Jordan pretty much lets Arenas do what he wants to do offensively. The coaches, front office, his teammates and the people where he lives tolerate, even celebrate, his quirks and peculiarities. He's beloved here, the biggest celebrity in a town with four professional teams, big-time college coaches and politicians galore.

And the team seems perfectly willing to build around him. He also has a GM, Grunfeld, with a history of finding players in the second round (Michael Redd in Milwaukee) and signing guys on the way up (Arenas himself).

Arenas loves Los Angeles, but the Lakers and Clippers are in the dumper right now and the Wizards aren't. Yes, Grunfeld needs to work some of his personnel magic this summer, perhaps to demonstrate to Arenas that he can play for a serious contender here. And Arenas needs to get back to his February form and put up in the playoffs in order to prove he's worth the max money he feels he deserves. Playing better defense would be part of the deal, for me, before I give a guy $100 million. If he can't do that, then the Wizards ought to keep their money in their pocket.

Arenas isn't Kobe or Dwyane Wade, but he's worth so much more than Vince Carter and Paul Pierce.

Once upon a time, the town went crazy when it appeared Juwan Howard was going to leave, and it turned out to be a mistake to keep him at the max price. Two years ago, a whole lot of people thought losing Larry Hughes would amount to a setback, and while the team hasn't won a playoff round since he went to Cleveland, raise your hand if you'd rather have Hughes than Butler.

The overwhelming chances are, some NBA team is going to give Arenas the money he's looking for, a five-year deal worth more than $15 million a year.

But only the Wizards can give him the Big Deal, six years for something close to $100 million. It's a marriage that has worked pretty well so far, and with a little work from both parties and the hint of potential breakup could produce the reactions that ultimately lead to true bliss.

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