Gilbert Arenas traded: Wizards' era of potential ultimately defined by errors

A career marked by exceptional highs on the court and controversial lows off of it comes to an end as the Wizards trade the star-crossed former all-star to the Orlando Magic.
By Mike Wise
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 12:59 AM

After last Dec. 21, this is about as well as it could possibly end for all parties involved.

Gilbert Arenas, almost a year to the day after he detonated his own career and the contending hopes of his franchise, gets to join a very good playoff team in Orlando. The Wizards maneuver out from under his albatross of a contract, clear future salary cap room for a genuine rebuild and finally move on from an era that never amounted to what team President Ernie Grunfeld envisioned.

But Grunfeld will take that, given the perception that his own career in Washington was always going to be tethered to signing Arenas to a $111 million deal in the summer of 2008. That financial commitment was manifest in a litany of knee surgeries, and the single most damaging event in the modern era of Washington pro basketball.

When Arenas brought guns into Verizon Center a year ago this month, in his mischievous, oddball mind, he thought he was settling a prank with mean-mugging teammate Javaris Crittenton; in reality, he had done something criminal and everything Grunfeld believed could happen in Washington went up in flames.

Within months, what passed for a Big Three here - Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison - was reduced to the Suspended and Troubled One. Arenas ended up in a halfway house in Montgomery County for a month for violating D.C. gun laws, his image was taken off the Verizon Center facade and all that he had done to bring magic and suspense in the Wizards' post-Michael Jordan era was forgotten.

Arenas made the shot that sunk Chicago in 2005, which helped advance the Wizards to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time in two decades, and he helped establish the playground scrap with Cleveland each year. Yes, the Wizards were knocked out each time, but they had not gone to the playoffs four years in a row since the 1980s.

Credit Grunfeld with moving a contract many observers in the NBA thought was near-impossible. Rashard Lewis was an all-star two years ago, but he was brought to Washington more as a rent-a-scorer and for cap room in 2012. With this move, Grunfeld gets a save with a little more than one year remaining on his contract.

Gilbert also gained a small measure of redemption for returning this season, blending in with his teammates and ceding the star role and franchise player title to No. 1 draft pick John Wall. Occasionally there were flashes of the Gil of old, a blinding stutter-step, or a stop and pop three-pointer that just demoralized the opposing defense. But on other nights, there was no more of the hellion who went to the basket without fear. Maybe it was because he wasn't getting calls like he used to, maybe it was because he was trying to play in his surgically repaired body. Either way, one of the top 10 players in the NBA between 2005 and January 2007 had become a serviceable point guard when the new star was hurt and a spot-up shooter when Wall was healthy.

I've said this many times: Worse than making an embarrassing perp walk at D.C. Superior Court or actually being booked into the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center, Arenas had to face the indignity of realizing what he had done to the Wizards. Every night he walked on that floor, he knew he had no support to make basketball matter in Washington in May or June. Because there is no talent beyond Wall, Kirk Hinrich, an injured Josh Howard and a bunch of guys who may or may not become bona fide role players on a playoff team. There are better summer runs at Pauley Pavilion than there are at Verizon Center on most nights.

Ted Leonsis, who took over the franchise after the death of Abe Pollin, apologized the other day on his blog for someone in the team's offices promoting an opponent; it's the knock everyone used to put on former president Susan O'Malley.

But why should anyone have a problem with telling greater Washington that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are coming to your city? There was little other reason to watch.

That's the real lament when I think of Arenas and what he meant here. The Wizards had a star. He wore number 0 and he hit shots at the buzzer and he took off his jersey each night at home and threw it into the stands, as if he had just finished an encore with some uber-popular rock band. Gilbert Arenas had the District's long-suffering pro basketball fans cradled in his hands. They loved him, and he loved them back.

Lost in all the "Gilbert is now the worst person in the history of the universe" madness last season after the gun incident, was the story of the kid who lost his parents in the fire, whom Gilbert befriended and supported financially and emotionally for many years. Lost was the way in which he reached out to his fans in an authentic way that never came across as a pre-arranged autograph signing or a league-mandated public relations event.

He was an original, and he made us get up out of our seats, and though it never matured into much more than being outplayed by LeBron each spring, for a moment we all thought we had something special and lasting. Gilbert Arenas was special, all right; he just didn't last.

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