After Arenas and Crittenton, Wizards face an uncertain future

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; D01

When Arenas and Crittenton brought guns to Verizon Center, they set off a series of

events that has put the future of nearly every member of the organization in flux.

The Washington Wizards' problems were hardly resolved when NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended guards Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton on Wednesday for the remainder of the season.

All that has been cleared up is that Arenas won't wear a Wizards uniform again this season, with Crittenton yet to decide if he will appeal the decision, which stemmed from the players bringing guns into the locker room.

The franchise is left to deal with myriad concerns. As one team insider put it on Thursday, "The worst isn't behind us yet."

Arenas is still set to be sentenced for a felony gun charge on March 26 and his relationship with the organization is in tatters -- with both sides feeling betrayed in the aftermath of this incident -- but there is no easy solution for a separation.

The foundering team, which many picked in the preseason to be among the conference's best with its $79.2 million payroll, is in desperate need of a makeover and opposing teams are looking to pluck talent from the Wizards' underachieving roster between now and the Feb. 18 trade deadline. And, more than two months after the death of owner Abe Pollin, his family and prospective buyer Ted Leonsis appear at odds over the sale of the team, leaving the future of the franchise in flux.

This has been a worst-case scenario season for the Wizards, who have the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference (14-30). They had to deal with poor chemistry on the court before Arenas and Crittenton's Dec. 21 dispute forced several members of the organization to speak with law enforcement authorities and NBA investigators.

"To be honest man, I'm not happy," Antawn Jamison said on Thursday, as the Wizards prepared to face the New Jersey Nets at Izod Center on Friday. "It's an embarrassment. To go through the things that we went through this year and to have the expectations . . . and to be where we're at right now, this a very disappointing season."

The Wizards have played without Arenas for the past 12 games and Crittenton for the entire season, so they won't have to make any major basketball adjustments. Coach Flip Saunders said the Wizards began to prepare to not have Arenas ever since he received an indefinite suspension on Jan. 6.

"The thing right now, at least there's some closure. I think from the standpoint of the team, we try to put it behind us as best we can and move forward and not have the distraction of wondering what's going to happen if players are going to be back or not," Saunders said, adding that his players have been "just emotionally and mentally worn down."

There are no simple answers when it comes to Arenas, who has made his disdain of the organization -- and President Ernie Grunfeld, in particular -- clear to those close to him, especially after the team removed most visible signs of him from Verizon Center and the team Web site. Grunfeld referred to Arenas as "our franchise player" in his news conference on Thursday, but according to multiple league sources, Arenas has infuriated some in the front office with his behavior in recent weeks, setting the stage for a possible divorce. Once close, Grunfeld and Arenas barely speak.

Grunfeld said during his news conference that the team isn't ruling out the possibility of voiding the remainder of the six-year, $111 million contract Arenas signed in the summer of 2008. But the organization has yet to contact the NBA legal department about taking that step. Players' union executive director Billy Hunter said the union "will respond aggressively to any attempt by the team to impose additional penalties."

A league source said the Wizards explored trading Arenas before he brought four guns to the locker room, but moving him has become more difficult now with his contract and sullied reputation. "Realistically, it would be impossible to trade for him right now," one rival league executive said on condition of anonymity because he could not speak on behalf of the Wizards. "No team is going to trade for him not knowing what his future is."

Grunfeld said during his news conference that the Wizards had not talked about or considered a contract buyout. The team insider said it is possible but "highly unlikely" that Arenas will play again for the Wizards. "You can never say never," the source said.

Crittenton's lawyer, Mark Bartelstein, said on Thursday that his client has not decided whether to appeal Stern's punishment, with him slated to lose more than $510,000 of his $1.47 million contract. Crittenton has yet to play this season because of a left ankle injury. "I want Javaris to take a day or two, take a deep breath, and just go through everything, let me take him through the pros and cons and we'll probably make a decision in a day or two," Bartelstein said.

Only 50 percent of Arenas and Crittenton's lost salary counts against the team salary. With Arenas expected to lose $7.4 million of his $16.2 million, it could provide some luxury tax relief for the Wizards. The money from those suspensions goes to the league office and is used for charities by the NBA and players' union. Crittenton could provide a desirable trade piece, with a team receiving a discounted salary for the remainder of the season.

Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller are among the players who have attracted attention from other teams. Multiple league sources said the Wizards do not expect to receive equal value in deals and are considering salary cap relief, young players and/or draft picks. "I'd use my assets to get off salary and try to restructure the whole thing," one Western Conference general manager said. "It didn't work. Push the reset button and try to create as much room as possible."

Although Grunfeld said that it is "business as usual" with regards to making moves, there is a sentiment among others around the league that the ownership uncertainty is clouding any possible deals. "I don't know there is anything they can do in the immediate future," the rival executive said, "because of the lack of a new owner."

Jamison said that it all has become unbearable. "I thought last year was tough" when the team went 19-63, he said, "but it's very disappointing. A couple years ago you're in the second round, on the doorstep, trying to break through, and now you're at the bottom of the pack, and you just sit there and ask questions like, 'Where did it go wrong?' For me, I'm struggling a bit mentally."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company