By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, January 28, 2010; 12:46 PM
It's difficult to imagine a franchise in any sport plunging any deeper into the unknown than the Washington Wizards did Wednesday with the NBA officially announcing its decision to suspend Gilbert Arenas for the remainder of the season. While the announcements regarding Arenas and Javaris Crittenton got the big headlines nationally, we've accepted around Washington for awhile now that neither would ever play for the Wizards again.
Of greater concern than what will happen to Arenas is how and when will the issue of the club's ownership be settled. While Washington Sports says nobody has an exclusive right to negotiate a purchase of the club, Ted Leonsis says his Lincoln Holdings indeed has an exclusive period to reach a deal. It's one of seemingly a dozen questions about the state of the Wizards that at the moment has no answer. If the club succeeds in voiding the remaining $80 million on Arenas's contract, does that make the Wizards worth more or less? And how would that affect negotiations? How reluctant is GM Ernie Grunfeld to make deals that would enhance the club's future for an ownership group that might not keep him as the club's day-to-day executive?
As of this minute the Wizards have no permanent owner and no star player. Arenas isn't coming back to Washington, and shouldn't. The club doesn't want him and he doesn't want to play here, which he made clear in his meeting with league officials. League sources, increasingly, are of the belief that the Wizards and Arenas will have to reach a buyout of his contract instead of the team voiding it.
Of course, Arenas is going to play again in the NBA, just not here. ... We're talking about a player who, after missing most of two seasons, was averaging 21 points and 7 assists per game. When the free agent dust settles by, oh, August of this summer, teams that have failed to execute a free agent makeover (while leading their fans to think just that would happen) will be increasingly interested in a 28-year-old guard who doesn't have the wear-and-tear of the last three years. The bet here is a half-dozen teams will wind up being interested in Arenas by mid-summer. And to facilitate that transition to a new team it might be in Arenas's best interest to let the team void his contract. Probably no team is going to want to take on the remaining chunk of his contract over four years. But at, say, $7 million a year, interest in Arenas would jump.
Certainly, the NBA Players Association will do its best to convince Arenas not to allow his deal to be voided, as to avoid a precedent that would overwhelmingly favor management. But that is certainly the course of action that would most help the Wizards, especially if such a move could be made in time for the new owners to have salary cap room available to court free agents like Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudemire, if not the big fish like LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
For now, it appears at the very least to be the end of the Arenas era, one that started with playoff trips and the promise of contention. But injuries, ill-advised rehabilitation efforts, the bloated $111 million contract and the unthinkably dumb and illegal act of bringing guns to the workplace led to what has resulted in this messy divorce.