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Gilbert Arenas can be a productive player again - but not with the Washington Wizards

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A somber Gilbert Arenas assesses his role on the team following the Wizards' victory over Dallas on Tuesday night.

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By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 12:14 AM

How can Gilbert Arenas drama possibly start this early? We can't even get through the first preseason game without Arenas saying something that raises eyebrows and causes most of us to say: "Are we at this point already? In the very first week of October?"

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Okay, Arenas on Wednesday backed off his comments from Tuesday night after the preseason opener, the ones where he made it sound like he was halfway out the door. He told The Post's Michael Lee after practice that he's not demanding a trade, not requesting a trade, not even suggesting the Washington Wizards trade him. He says he remains committed to the Wizards and he wants to help make John Wall a star. You get the drift.

The interest here isn't in parsing every single thing that comes out of Arenas's mouth, a local obsession for some that's become increasingly tiresome. If I ran the Wizards (a nightmare more than a fantasy), I'd reduce the Arenas issue to this: either see evidence he can return to being the player he once was and be an asset as a teammate or prepare to get rid of him by any means necessary.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not an Arenas hater. In fact, as a columnist I've found him to be completely engaging, often delightful even after losses or in difficult times. Last summer we stood in Nordstrom in Chicago and talked for an hour, about everything and nothing. It's too bad about the legal troubles and the various dramas because Arenas was once a top-10 player in the NBA and a guy who behaved quite neighborly. But that was then. It's come now to something that appears to be untenable.

I believe Arenas can be a productive player in the NBA again . . . just not here in Washington. There's too much history to overcome, too much disappointment. You can come back from injury, from a bad season or a tough playoff loss. But in Arenas's case the disappointment defines his time here. The playoff losses to Cleveland, the unfortunate injuries, the hardheadedness when it came to rehabilitating after the first surgery, the decline in play, the felonious gun charges, the long NBA suspension. When is the last time something good happened to Arenas professionally? Great athletes beat odds all the time; it's what drives them and in a great many cases obsesses them. But they almost always need a boost from a change of scenery.

Team owner Ted Leonsis and President Ernie Grunfeld should continue doing what they're doing, saying nice things about Arenas and how they want him here . . . all the while trying to trade him to anybody that will take him. If Michael Jordan could trade what was left of Juwan Howard's huge contract in 2001, then Grunfeld ought to be able to trade Arenas, even if it is for 50 cents on the dollar.

When you're starting over, as the Wizards are, you don't keep holdovers . . . unless they possess something extraordinary that makes them an asset. Go ahead and tell me what Arenas has that's extraordinary? Talent? Not anymore. Demeanor? It's terrible. I'm not saying he can't recapture these things; it's just not going to happen here.

So far this season, which actually is three weeks from beginning, Arenas has made two public impressions.

One, he said on the very first day the team assembled officially, "I'm not going to smile." Great.

Two, in the minutes after a pretty darn good preseason debut for John Wall, sounded to most folks like he'd just as soon move on. Actually, I don't blame Arenas; management should make sure he moves on sooner rather than later. But Arenas's demeanor couldn't have helped. Players around the league are joking about his appearance, which for those of you of a certain age is akin to the unkempt Grady character on "Sanford and Son." Brendan Haywood said Arenas looks like Bill Cosby in "Uptown Saturday Night" which is also dead-on. Either way, general managers and club executives around the league are ever more likely than usual to think, "Okay, Gil's even more unstable than usual!" Instead of reporting on the first day and treating it like a job interview, where he could show off his brand and what an asset he can be, Arenas announced a no-smile policy.

See, the Wizards need to stop thinking Arenas is going to change and divorce themselves from this mess. They need to focus their energies on Wall, JaVale McGee and Yi Jianlian, who at 7-feet has some really nice swingman skills. (Maybe they can peddle Gil to Minnesota and David Kahn. He collects point guards . . . and guys who, uh, color outside the lines, such as Michael Beasley. You think Arenas is trouble; Gil is Grant Hill and David Robinson compared with Beasley.)

When you're trying to build something positive, you don't need an energy drain, which is what that postgame session with Arenas was Tuesday night. Wall played terrifically in his preseason debut. He must be among the fastest players in the league and at 6 feet 4, he's no smurf. He's about the same size as Chicago's Derrick Rose and has some of the same skills, starting with speed. Most of the attention this fall should be on Wall, his successes and failures as a rookie, his evolution, and not on whether Arenas is healthy, whether he's happy, whether he's getting enough shots, whether he's a 1 or a 2, whether the Wizards are his team or Wall's.

The Arenas drama should simply play out elsewhere, including the thing about Arenas that he doesn't want you to know . . . that he does care about people's perceptions, he does care whether people cheer him or not. He's 28 years old and I think it's quite possible Arenas has some very good, if not great, basketball left in him, and I presume some goodwill as well. Just not here. Wall doesn't need that kind of mentoring, from someone whose self-absorption was once charming but now seems a detriment.

If the Wizards are smart and resourceful about this (and yes, a little lucky to find a trade partner) they'll wish Arenas well and send him on his way, even if it just means home for a paid vacation, and either bring in a real mentor for Wall who has known something other than disappointment lately or just let the rookie go it alone. Just about anything is better than more of the drama in recent seasons that killed what the Wizards had going five, six seasons ago, a drama starring Gilbert Arenas.

wilbonm@washpost.com


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