By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009
In a small, quiet corner of the nearly empty visitors' locker room at TD Banknorth Garden, Gilbert Arenas reached into his duffel bag late Wednesday night and pulled out about a half-dozen 8-by-11 blue cards on which he had scribbled his summer workout schedule. He had spent the past two weeks ironing out each detail of the most anticipated offseason of his career, after spending the past two years worried about his surgically repaired left knee.
"See," Arenas said, shuffling the cards. "I'm going to be ready."
Later that evening, on the team flight back to Washington, Arenas said he talked to some teammates about the importance of sticking together next season and the need for everyone to get serious about putting one of the most forgettable, regrettable 82-game campaigns in franchise history behind them.
Arenas mentioned the Wizards' reputation for being playful during four consecutive playoff seasons. But it's hard to laugh when everyone is laughing at you, he told them. "We've just been a goofball team for a while. It's fun when you're winning. But when you're not winning, it's depressing a little bit," Arenas said. "To be honest, I'm a goofball. But when I step inside those lines, it's serious. Some of them don't know how to turn that on and off. I told them, it comes with time. You've got to put your work in in the summer because we're coming at you."
With the Wizards expected to hire Flip Saunders as the 22nd coach in franchise history sometime next week, the team is about to undergo serious change, but it's change that Arenas and co-captains Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler hope can take them from a woeful 19-win season back to the playoffs. It caught some off-guard to hear the serious tone on the plane coming from Arenas, the ringleader of much of the silliness.
"He said next year's going to be totally different, no playing around," reserve Andray Blatche said. "Gil surprised me with it."
Butler didn't hear the conversation -- he was too occupied watching "The Notebook" on his portable DVD player. "If he did [say that], I'm happy to see him step up in that light," Butler said, smiling. "He's the face of the franchise. He's the guy. It's about time for that talk to be coming out of his mouth. I'm happy to see that."
The Wizards are looking ahead to next season, when they will presumably have a roster that includes a healthy Arenas and Brendan Haywood -- who combined to miss 155 games this season -- a possible high lottery pick and Saunders, a respected coach with an accomplished track record that includes four trips to the conference finals in five seasons.
"We are a playoff-caliber team if we have everybody healthy," said Jamison. The Wizards led the league with 309 games lost to injury and illness this season. "I think the biggest question is, 'Is this a championship-caliber team?' We have the talent. Is this a contender? With everybody healthy are we going to be the type of team that can honestly contend for a championship and come out of the East? Are we going to have that type of mind frame that you know what, we got to sacrifice for sake of the team in order to get the ultimate goal? Good questions, and very important at that."
Arenas, who said he experienced no setbacks in his two games played this season, said that he won't focus on trying to score 30 points a game next season. After having 20 assists and just one turnover in his cameo role this season, Arenas said he will be a little less Agent Zero and "turn into a real point guard. To be honest I want to lead the league in triple doubles next season. We have enough scorers on this team where I can try to dominate the game in other ways."
Arenas said he has invited Blatche and Nick Young, two of the Wizards' talented but inconsistent young players, to work out with him in Washington this summer. Haywood started his offseason workouts yesterday. Arenas will start Monday. Jamison and Butler said they will both take two weeks off to rest and then get back to work.
Jamison added that it is important for the youngsters and veterans to work out and hang out with each other this summer. They need to develop an understanding that everyone needs to be committed to the same goals in order to avoid some of the pitfalls that have resulted in three consecutive first-round exits to Cleveland and the firing of Eddie Jordan last November. "I think the [new] coaching staff is really going to have to get them," Jamison said of the team's young talent. "They've been in a nice bed and breakfast the last couple of seasons. We've messed with too many people's livelihoods the last couple of years. It's time to own up to the importance of our role with this team."
Arenas said he doesn't want to be a distraction next season and laughed at the reports that he could be a handful for the next coach to deal with.
"I know everyone thinks I'm going to be the big head case," Arenas said. "But I don't fight with anybody. I don't fight with the coaches. I don't fight with the players. I don't really say anything -- only to the media. I'm just a hype man. It's all smoke and mirrors with me."
He added that it was tough watching his team suffer in his absence this season. "It's difficult because everyone likes to kick you when you're down," Arenas said. "This is one of them tough seasons we had, and you know, everyone's laughing at us now. We'll see what happens when November rolls around."