By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; D05
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."
TNT analyst Reggie Miller, who spent his entire 18-year career with the Pacers said he still regrets that the brawl happened during his final season and laments the impact it had on the franchise. "The Pacers have never, ever recovered from that night. Things will never be the same," Miller said. "Being on a team when total chaos hit, it was deflating. We thought we were primed to get back to the conference finals and get over the hump and get back to the championship. Then all hell broke loose. It took the wind out."
Saunders guided the Minnesota Timberwolves the season after Malik Sealy died in an automobile accident, but he has never experienced a more tumultuous regular season than this one. "I don't think there is anyone in the NBA that can compare, from the standpoint of the amount of injuries that have taken a toll on the team, with your main players, a continuous revolving door and the situation that happened five or six weeks ago and the toll it has taken on everybody. It affects you so much mentally. And as everyone knows, mentally it will wear you down physically."
Arenas has made his displeasure with the Wizards and Grunfeld over how his situation has been handled known to those close to him, with the organization distancing itself from him in recent weeks.
O'Neal worked out with Arenas at Tim Grover's training facility in Chicago last summer. He said the hard feelings that develop in the aftermath of a potentially franchise-altering event never truly heal and said he believes Arenas and the Wizards would be best served if they parted ways sooner rather than later.
"From the outside looking in at Gil's situation, everybody's put him on an island by himself," O'Neal said when the Heat visited the Wizards last month. "It's very difficult to go through that and it never really stops because you live it over and over and over again. It's like Groundhog Day. It takes a lot out of you mentally and physically. All of a sudden you find your career being all about negativity and nothing about basketball. As a player you have to understand that you have to get away so an organization can move on. Why not transition to something that the city can be proud of again?"
Grunfeld already has stated that the team will explore all options as it relates to Arenas and has not ruled out the possibility of looking into voiding what's left of Arenas's six-year, $111 million contract. Arenas will be sentenced on March 26 and has already written an apology to fans in a Washington Post op-ed, promising to promote nonviolence to kids.
"As they always say, and this too shall pass," Miller said. "This will pass."