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The decline and fall of Gilbert Arenas

When Hughes left, Arenas followed with his two most explosive offensive seasons, but he often pined for a back-court mate who could provide a similar connection.

"Larry, somehow, he had that connection with Gilbert, where if he went off the deep end, Larry would always seem to bring him back," Haywood said.

"Larry leaving, that really hurt us. Larry was really the leader of our team," said forward Jared Jeffries. "We all felt like it was the start of something good for us, but we also understood that guys were free agents and guys might not be there. I don't think anybody was shocked with how it came out. When guys started leaving it was tough."

Loss to Cleveland

Nonetheless, the Wizards won 42 games the following season -- overcoming the absence of Hughes with Butler, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers in a deal for former No. 1 overall pick Kwame Brown -- and opened the 2006 playoffs with an epic series against Cleveland. The Cavaliers' LeBron James provided some of the first real hints of his eventual greatness, averaging 35.4 points in the series, but Arenas matched him nearly basket for basket as he averaged 34 points. Three of the Wizards' four losses came by one point.

"To me, that series, the first, was the most focused I've ever seen" Arenas, said Jeffries, who signed with the New York Knicks as a free agent in the summer of 2006 and has since moved on to Houston. "He was playing great defensively, as well as shooting the ball at a high level. Whenever you reach that level as a basketball player, they look for you to take your team to that next step, and that's carry your team to a championship. I think Gil had those expectations."

In Game 6, the Wizards were in position to force a seventh game when Arenas stepped to the foul line with the Wizards nursing a one-point lead with 15 seconds remaining in overtime.

Arenas, an 80 percent foul shooter that season, missed his first attempt and stared at the basket, dumbfounded. James, a playoff neophyte, suddenly looked like a seasoned gamesman as he walked up to Arenas, patted him on the chest and told him, "If you miss these free throws, you're going home."

Arenas missed the second free throw and Cleveland's Damon Jones made the game-winning jumper in the Wizards' 114-113 loss. Arenas said afterward, "You feel you let your city down."

He has yet to make another playoff appearance at full strength.

First serious injury

Initially the disappointment from the Cleveland loss seemed to only inflame Arenas's passion for the game, and when he was cut from the U.S. national team before the world championships that summer, his fire burned even brighter.

Arenas responded with the best season of his career in 2006-07 and earned his first all-star start in Las Vegas. He hit game-winning shots against Milwaukee and Utah, erupted for two 50-point games and scored a franchise-record 60 points in an overtime win in Los Angeles against the Lakers. His popularity expanded as he wrote an effusive NBA.com blog -- which became an Internet phenomenon -- was given the nickname "Agent Zero," and threw a $1 million 25th birthday party in D.C. hosted by hip-hop mogul Diddy.

Butler also made his first all-star appearance, and Eddie Jordan coached the Eastern Conference all-star squad as the Wizards had the best record in the East for a week-long span from Jan. 26, 2007, to Feb. 2, 2007.


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