By Michael Wilbon
The Washington Post
Sunday, January 3, 2010; D01
That's a wrap. The Washington Wizards as we've known them the last five years are over and done. If Ted Leonsis was wondering whether he wanted to completely blow up this team -- oops, maybe I shouldn't have put it like that -- this latest news about Gilbert Arenas and guns in the team locker room should make his decision very easy.
Time to start over. With Arenas disputing reports that he and Javaris Crittenton were going Wyatt Earp and Billy Clanton and actually brandishing guns in what should be the players' safe haven, Leonsis can feel as free as an owner can be to wave bye-bye to everybody who's been around the past six years.
Three men who are involved in coaching/administration of NBA teams told me last week, even before the disturbing Arenas news, that it was time to clean house in Washington. Their reasoning is that you cannot have a successful team when the nucleus of that team has failed, for whatever reason, to make reasonable progress toward a conference championship for so long a period of time. Guys get tired of playing with one another. Personality clashes become inevitable. Certain players become marginalized through no fault of their own -- in this case, Caron Butler.
Yes, this even means moving the players you like, the absolute professionals who could easily wind up helping playoff teams elsewhere. Multiple teams want Antawn Jamison. Multiple teams want Butler. They're assets. Their new coaches and their new teammates are going to love them. And as someone who has gotten to know them both over the last few years, I hope they wind up with teams with a real chance to win, which they won't have in Washington with all this drama. The Wizards should start with dealing the most tradable assets they have and get what they can in return, preferably players with bloated salaries in the final year of their contracts for cap purposes and (if possible) first-round draft picks.
Jamison and Butler will be easy to deal. Arenas? Not so much. There's the issue of his bloated contract, plus not yet being back to his all-star form of 2005 and now whatever insanity took place in the locker room. The NBA is going to have to figure out, through its own investigation, whether there was the threat of gunplay or not. If it is determined that there was, both players have to be suspended. Beyond that, smart team counsel would look seriously into trying to void what's left of Arenas's $111 million contract.
Wouldn't that work out well going into the free agency summer of 2010?
Suppose you could get a mulligan on what's left of the Arenas contract and trade for, say, Tracy McGrady and his $20 million-plus deal that expires in June? Now, that's how you start from scratch. Of course the players' union and Arenas's agent -- oops, he doesn't have one -- would scream bloody murder. But that's not the team's concern. When Arenas was playing at an all-star level and leading the Wizards to the playoffs, almost any drama was worth it. But when the drama exceeds the productivity to this extreme, especially when we're talking about guns, he's got to go.
The Wizards' concern at this point should be putting a credible product back on the court. And that starts with unloading anybody they can. Who's a sacred cow in that room at this point? Yeah, I'd like to actually keep Mike Miller, Randy Foye and Brendan Haywood. That's it.
Is trading Arenas going to be impossible? No. Remember, folks thought trading Juwan Howard's huge contract was impossible, but Michael Jordan did that, which is how the Wizards got the cap room to sign Arenas in the first place. Remember, Howard was seen around the league as infinitely more coachable and manageable than Arenas (which is why Howard is still in the league, the last of the Fab Five).
Still, here's how the Wizards could get lucky. There are teams that will not be able to sign mega free agents this coming summer, despite the hype. Think Knicks and Nets. What happens in metropolitan New York when fans think they're getting something shiny and new (in other words, LeBron James) and don't? Out-of-control expectations lead to desperate moves. Somebody's going to look at Arenas's skill level and age and say, "Well, he's an upgrade for what we've got." It's Ernie Grunfeld's job to find out who that is, even if he has to take back something he doesn't want.
It's all so unfortunate because it made sense that a team with Arenas, Jamison, Butler, Haywood, Miller and Foye all healthy could be competitive in the Eastern Conference.
Beyond Boston, Cleveland, Orlando and Atlanta, the other four playoff spots are up for grabs. A five-game winning streak in the East, even if you've been rotten for weeks, can vault you into sixth or seventh place. But even the coaches and scouts who've been patiently waiting for the Wizards to come around have now bailed. You ought to see something promising by New Year's Day.
What could really stink is any proposal the club's new ownership might make to change the name of the team from Wizards back to Bullets. Let's face it, 95 percent of people in basketball circles want the return to "Bullets." But if it turns out that even innocent goofing around with guns in the team's locker room is true it would be a little difficult to become the "Bullets" in the immediate future. Then again, everything the franchise attempts to do seems sabotaged by poor planning, poor performance, bad luck, bad judgment, bad karma. And when such is the case, cleaning everything out and starting anew, seems the only place to start.