By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010; D04
For the first time, Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld publicly shot down speculation that the team would look into terminating the remaining four years and more than $80 million remaining on suspended guard Gilbert Arenas's contract.
"We're not going to void his contract, and as we've said all along, he's going to be with us," Grunfeld said Saturday at a hastily arranged news conference before the Wizards game at Verizon Center against the Utah Jazz.
The comments were the first in public by Grunfeld since Arenas was sentenced for felony gun possession in D.C. Superior Court on Friday. Grunfeld reiterated previous comments about bringing back Arenas, who was sentenced to 30 days in a halfway house, two years of supervised probation and 400 hours of community service and fined $5,000 after bringing four guns to Verizon Center in a dispute with Javaris Crittenton on Dec. 21.
A person with knowledge of the Wizards' thinking said on Friday that the Pollin family was not interested in pursuing the complicated task of contract termination, which has never been successfully carried out in the NBA. Grunfeld went a step further Saturday, making the case for welcoming back the three-time all-star into the fold.
"I think people sometimes tend to forget that he's still one of the best players in this league. He averaged 23 points and seven assists when he was with us," Grunfeld said. "He's a dynamic player and he was just coming back off injury. So we plan to have him back and we plan to have him in uniform this year."
The gun incident embarrassed the franchise and generated hard feelings on both sides. The Wizards organization was upset with Arenas's initial carefree attitude, while Arenas was angered that the team distanced itself by failing to promote him and sell his jersey in the wake of the incident, which also led to Arenas's NBA-mandated suspension in January for the remainder of the season. Grunfeld said he has not spoken with Arenas in a few months, but plans to soon sit down with him. He added that Arenas might have to regain the trust of fans upon his return.
"Gilbert is one of the more popular athletes to play in D.C. in a really long time. And a lot of people had a lot of great affection for him," he said. "He did some magnificent things on the basketball court and what happened a few months ago, some people are disappointed in. He has to maybe get the love back from some of those people, but I think a lot of people will accept it and there may be some that don't."
The incident and its aftermath expedited the rebuilding process for the Wizards, with Grunfeld making several cost-cutting deals at the trade deadline to ship away Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson. The moves brought the Wizards below the luxury tax threshold this season and created nearly $18.7 million in available cap room for this offseason.
With the fourth-worst record in the NBA, the Wizards are assured a high lottery pick, and they also acquired a first-round choice from Cleveland.
"I think we put ourselves in a position where we have a lot of flexibility with the trades that we've made," Grunfeld said. "We have a lot of cap room. We have a lot of draft picks. All of these are going to help us to improve the team, and getting a player like Gilbert into the fold is only going to help."
Grunfeld said he has not spoken with prospective new owner Ted Leonsis because he still answers to the Pollin family. But when asked if he was confident that Leonsis would allow him to complete the reclamation project, Grunfeld sounded hopeful.
"I think I'm pretty good at what I do. I have a pretty good track record and we'll see when new ownership takes over what happens," Grunfeld said. "I think we've done a pretty good job here, and if you look at the other places I've been, I've rebuilt several teams, many times over. So I'm confident in my abilities. It's a good challenge and I'm looking forward to it."