For $111 Million, We Need More

After wowing fans with scoring barrages, buzzer-beaters, imaginative nicknames and an entertaining blog, Gilbert Arenas has been sidelined by a knee injury for most of the past two seasons. In the meantime, he also agreed to a six-year, $111 million contract to stay in Washington in the summer of 2008. What's next for the mercurial star as he attempts to make a healthy return?
By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, July 5, 2008

Isn't it just fabulous, Gilbert Arenas putting aside his own basic needs to sacrifice for the greater good of Washington and the Wizards by accepting $111 million instead of $127 million? How unbelievably heroic can one man be? It's not like the $16 million surplus will allow the Wizards to go get Elton Brand, too. It will allow the Wizards to keep a couple of their own guys and not pay a big luxury tax. Whoop-de-doo!

Don't get me wrong, the Wizards handled this very, very skillfully. They did just what you have to do when trying not to offend an NBA superstar's fragile sensibilities. The Wizards "respected" Arenas by offering him the maximum contract allowable under league rules, then held their breath, hoping that Arenas would leave some money on the table and thus a little wiggle room for personnel procurement and tax relief. It worked in stark contrast to the Juwan Howard negotiations in 1996 when the then-Bullets cost themselves, oh, $80 million by failing to understand not just the market, but the way business usually must be done in the NBA.

The Wizards did probably all they could do in keeping Arenas and Antawn Jamison, short of tearing up the team and starting over. I like Arenas. I like him as a player. I certainly, as a sportswriter, like him as Washington's No. 1 copy-producing athlete-celebrity. I like his blog, his parties, the way he tosses his jersey into the stands after games. I like that he'll say exactly what's on his mind, that he sneaks into the gym at 2 a.m. to shoot jumpers. I like that he's stylish and engaging and even that he tries to come back too quickly from injuries.

Arenas is good for the business of basketball here, good for the business of talking sports. He's 26 and hasn't yet reached his prime. With Arenas as the centerpiece, surrounded by Jamison and Caron Butler, the Wizards should continue to be both competitive and entertaining. The team is viable, which for a long time simply wasn't the case.

But I don't know that I'd have given him $111 million -- or $100 million. If I pay somebody max dollars, I want it to be a player I feel confident can get me to the conference finals. Believe it or not, this may be asking too much. Of the players with the largest contracts in the NBA since 1999, only Kobe Bryant ($136 million) and Tim Duncan ($122 million) have gotten their teams to the NBA Finals. Jermaine O'Neal ($127 million), Rashard Lewis ($126 million) and Chris Webber ($123 million) have not -- though Lewis is only one season into his deal in Orlando and Webber was bumped from the Finals by terrible officiating in 2002.

Still, when payroll jumps, so do expectations. (Ask Mr. Quarter-Billion, Alex Rodriguez.) Does Arenas's new deal mean the Wizards are suddenly better than Cleveland? Absolutely not, not as long as LeBron James wears a Cavaliers uniform. James is 3-0 in playoff series vs. the Wizards, so this isn't arguable. Does Arenas's new wealth mean the Wizards are as good as Orlando? No, not unless the Wizards' big men are going to counteract Dwight Howard. Heck, I'm not even sure the Wizards are going to be better than Miami if the new coaching staff there figures out how to work in Michael Beasley with Dwyane Wade and Shawn Marion. Charlotte will definitely improve with Larry Brown on the bench. And I'm just looking at the division, not the entire Eastern Conference.

As spicy as the Arenas story has been, the development of the Wizards' big men is going to be more critical to the improvement of the team than anything. Just look at the Celtics: It's not just that Kevin Garnett is big and great, though he's both at 7 feet. It's that Boston hits you with 6-10, 264-pound Kendrick Perkins, long and athletic Leon Powe, 6-9, 289-pound Glen "Big Baby" Davis and 6-11 P.J. Brown. That's five bigs, who together work the body.

The Wizards will need Andray Blatche, Oleksiy Pecherov, Dominic McGuire, JaVale McGee and Brendan Haywood, if not others, to have a similar ensemble effect. And Nick Young will have to become a reliable big-time scorer off the bench.

A big reason to give the Wizards the benefit of the doubt is that Ernie Grunfeld is making these decisions. He's the one who built the Knicks into an NBA Finals team in 1994 and 1999. Grunfeld found Olympian Michael Redd in the second round, and stole a young Arenas from Golden State when the Warriors didn't know quite what they had. Grunfeld has proved that he has instincts for making the right move, and he's never wavered on the question of whether the Wizards should, or would, keep Arenas.

However, sooner rather than later we're going to come to the no-more-excuses portion of the program. This is the part where the key Wizards are expected to stay healthy the way highly paid stars ought to, where they actually play the kind of defense contenders play, where multiple all-stars gang up on supernovas like LeBron the way the Celtics did.

But in order for all these complementary players, role players and reserves to matter the way they should, the star has to be in place. That's the way it has been and probably always will be in the NBA. The Wizards have secured that player in their estimation. Arenas has no upcoming opt-out. There's no more testing the free agent waters. He is being paid an amount of money that doesn't seem discounted to the rest of us. It's time for him to listen to his coach, learn how to best use his teammates and take the Wizards deeper into May basketball, if not June. If he does that, he'll be worth $100 million-plus. If he doesn't, he won't be.

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