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Paying Arenas Hardly Guarantees Playing in June

The Celtics' Kevin Garnett goes to the basket last night against the Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, which ended too late for this edition. For complete coverage, see www.washingtonpost.com.
The Celtics' Kevin Garnett goes to the basket last night against the Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, which ended too late for this edition. For complete coverage, see www.washingtonpost.com. (By Stephen Dunn -- Getty Images)
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By Michael Wilbon
Friday, June 13, 2008

LOS ANGELES

There are 28 other franchises wondering what they have to do to knock aside the Lakers and Celtics to get here, to the NBA Finals. Their executives are pondering trades they might make, what free agents they have to sign, which of their own players are worth keeping or need to be let go. Of course, the Washington Wizards are one of those teams. And although Gilbert Arenas formally exercising his option to become a free agent was expected, it nonetheless puts the Wizards officially in Big Decision mode.

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Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards' president of basketball operations, has over the past dozen years been one of the NBA's successful assessors of talent and personnel. And Grunfeld has said for months, without wavering, that he intends to re-sign Arenas. Even so, it doesn't stop other teams from calling and trying to tempt Grunfeld into a deal. And even if Grunfeld keeps Arenas, at whatever price, it won't mean the Wizards will be any closer to playing basketball in June. Unless the Wizards improve through personnel acquisition, Arenas's best shot of seeing the NBA Finals could be finding a seat in the arena here in the Southern California community where he grew up.

In the meantime, it's fun to look at which players might be available and which ones would or wouldn't make any sense even if Grunfeld decided to pursue any offers for Arenas. Can they become as big and strong and versatile in the front court as the Celtics? Can they find players late in the first round who can contribute, like the Lakers have?

Three consecutive first-round losses suggest the Wizards aren't particularly close to climbing past the Celtics as a conference representative, or even climbing past the Pistons, Cavaliers or Magic in the East.

For starters, there are very few attractive free agents out there, and it's not like the Wizards have room under the salary cap to run out and make an offer. They'd have to make a trade. At least there are a handful of teams who are willing to consider a deal. Denver's one of them. And yes, Carmelo Anthony, a big-time scorer just entering his prime, could be available. But Denver couldn't possibly pair Arenas with Allen Iverson in the back court. And bringing Anthony to Washington puts him much too close to Baltimore and characters from his childhood best left 2,000 or more miles away.

Melo, like Arenas, is an offensive player who isn't much defensively and has proven to have as much, if not more, baggage than Arenas. (And before local folks start clamoring for Iverson, keep in mind he's scheduled to make more than $20 million next season.)

One player who has no baggage, apart from health concerns, is Elton Brand -- a player who would give the Wizards inside scoring they haven't had since Chris Webber was in D.C. Brand has yet to opt out of his current deal, and the Clippers have dreams of re-signing both Brand and Corey Maggette, adding an impact player through the draft and signing another free agent to get back to where they were two years ago when they were one win from the conference finals.

Though Arenas spurned the Clippers for the Wizards a few years ago, sources here in Los Angeles indicate the Clippers are interested in making one more run at Arenas. It makes sense, provided the Wizards could find a sign-and-trade to their liking.

Of course, there could be better options up the road north, in Oakland, where the Warriors have to figure out what they'll do with both point guard Baron Davis and defensive-minded center-power forward Andris Biedrins. Davis could also opt out, and Biedrins is a restricted free agent. Package them in a deal to Washington with Arenas as the centerpiece? If I'm Grunfeld, I'd do it in a heartbeat if the option was signing Arenas to a max contract. The Warriors are said to still have some regret over the way they lost Arenas to the Wizards after they selected him in the draft. The Warriors also have to figure out what to do about free agents Monta Ellis and Kelenna Azubuike.

The Warriors have attractive players and unlike the Chicago Bulls, who have attractive and tradable players but a paralyzed GM, are much more decisive.

Miami's Shawn Marion would be, by a thousand miles, the Wizards' best defensive player, but the Heat wouldn't have any interest in Arenas (though perhaps it would be interested in Antawn Jamison).

But what any team would wonder about, even more than Arenas's flamboyance, is his health, coming off two injury-plagued seasons. Arenas, largely because of his unique skills and the way Grunfeld has acquired players who complement him, is still more valuable to the Wizards than to any other team, even if they have to overpay him for a player who has only once led his team out of the first round of the playoffs.

The bottom line isn't whether the Wizards can keep Arenas, but whether keeping him ultimately facilitates getting any closer to every team's ultimate goal of playing in June.


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