NBA history indicates the Washington Wizards' road from ruin to recovery won't be easy

The Wizards are just 5-11 since Gilbert Arenas was suspended on Jan. 6.
The Wizards are just 5-11 since Gilbert Arenas was suspended on Jan. 6. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010

ORLANDO -- The Washington Wizards were among the dregs of the Eastern Conference with Gilbert Arenas this season, but moving forward without him has proven to be an ordeal for the players, coaching staff and others within the organization.

The Wizards will play their 17th game without Arenas on Friday against the Orlando Magic. As they continue to lose games, and some players quietly hope for an escape with the trade deadline looming, Coach Flip Saunders said this has been his most challenging job in 14 seasons in the NBA.

"As a coach, no question, just because of the uncertainty," Saunders said.

Losing a star player because of a lengthy suspension can hinder a franchise for some time. The Indiana Pacers, likely headed to their fourth consecutive trip to the draft lottery, were an Eastern Conference finals contender before the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich., in November 2004 set them back because of suspensions to Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson.

Arenas bringing guns to the locker room as part of a dispute with teammate Javaris Crittenton isn't the same as Artest fighting with fans, but both incidents brought shame to the players and embarrassed their respective organizations. Their subsequent season-ending suspensions also placed a heavy burden on teammates forced to regroup in their absence.

"You never actually recover. Not only did it derail that year, it knocked the floor from under us, organization-wise," O'Neal, now with the Miami Heat, said of the brawl. "It was a cloud over the organization."

The Pacers made a playoff run despite Artest missing the final 86 games of the regular season and postseason, but the Wizards (16-32) are just 5-11 since Arenas was suspended on Jan. 6, even though they were preparing to be without him before Commissioner David Stern decided to sideline him for the rest of the season three weeks later.

"It takes a lot of mental toughness to stay focused and not be distracted by what's going on outside," reserve point guard Earl Boykins said. "Right now, we're a struggling basketball team, so the distraction has affected us."

In addition to the Wizards losing their best and highest-paid player, at least nine players and several other members of the organization, including Saunders and President Ernie Grunfeld, were questioned by law enforcement officials and NBA investigators. It disrupted their regular routines and added another distraction to a season filled with them.

The Pacers also were forced to appear in court, with Artest, Jackson and O'Neal later sentenced to one year on probation, community service, fines and counseling.

The Pacers brought back Artest the next season, expecting to make another run for a title, and team president Larry Bird posed with Artest on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But by early December, Artest demanded a trade, saying, "I still think my past haunts me here."

Feeling betrayed, the Pacers dealt Artest to Sacramento one month later. "When Ronnie asked for a trade, it fractured our whole team," said New York Knicks President Donnie Walsh, who was chief executive of the Pacers at the time of the brawl. "It really did because our players had gone through a lot, going to court, both civil and criminal. It took its toll. It affected us, there is no doubt. But at some point, you have to accept it and move on."

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