By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; D01
He came to the Washington Wizards more than seven years ago, a fresh-faced 21-year-old kid, flashing an infectious smile, possessing an eccentric and gregarious personality and boasting about leading this moribund franchise back to prosperity.
In his time in the District, Gilbert Arenas filled a void for a team that was attempting to overcome the Michael Jordan era, by providing entertainment on and off the court and giving fans a legitimate superstar to rally behind. But his legacy will also remain controversial and uneven, filled with unfulfilled promise, as injuries, and later an embarrassing gun incident, left the franchise in tatters and forced it to turn its attention to another fresh-faced kid.
"Gilbert was really the first player I signed when I got here and he did a lot for this organization, but I think it was time for a change," Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said during a news conference before the team's 95-94 loss to the Miami Heat. "It's a fresh start for us and a fresh start for Gilbert."
Arenas had long been considered untradeable with his baggage and a contract worth around $62 million over the next three seasons after this one. But his close ties with Magic General Manager Otis Smith - who has served as a mentor for Arenas since the two were together in Golden State - helped push the deal along. Talks between both sides intensified in recent days, with Arenas telling those close to him that something could soon happen. He told some fans during a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at Verizon Center on Tuesday that it was his last game in a Wizards uniform. He actually had just one more.
Arenas was already at Orlando's Amway Center at halftime of the Magic's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night. "This is a new beginning for me," he told reporters. "This is a true new beginning. Going back and changing my number wasn't a new beginning. This is a real new beginning in a new city, new people, a new team. I get to start fresh."
The timing of the trade was somewhat surprising since it comes nearly two weeks after Wizards owner Ted Leonsis shot down a trade rumor involving Arenas, and about a month after Leonsis said Arenas "isn't going anywhere." But Grunfeld said on Saturday, "Ted was 100 percent on board with this, this goes in line with what he wants to do."
Signing Arenas in 2003 to a six-year, $65 million deal will likely serve as the best move Grunfeld made in his time in Washington. Under that deal, Arenas made three all-star teams and, in 2005, he led the Wizards to their only second-round playoff appearance since 1982.
But giving him a six-year, $111 million deal will likely go down as Grunfeld's worst, since Arenas has been limited to just 68 games by injuries and suspension since he signed in the summer of 2008. Asked if he would give Arenas that second contract again, Grunfeld said: "Well, if you had a crystal ball and knew somebody would get hurt, you'd say: 'No. We're not going to do that.' But at the time we signed Gilbert, he was one of the top 10 players in the game. Looking back on it, we did what we thought at the time was best for the organization. You can't foresee what's going to happen in the future as far as injuries are concerned."
For the Wizards, the move was motivated more by finances than basketball, since Lewis, a two-time all-star, is owed $43 million in the next two seasons after this one, but he is guaranteed about $10 million (possibly $13 million with performance-based incentives) in 2012-13, the final season of the deal. By getting out from under Arenas's contract, the Wizards will save more than $30 million.
The trade also signaled that the team can truly begin its rebuilding process around No. 1 overall pick John Wall. "There's no question. No one is ever going to ask whose team it is," Coach Flip Saunders said. "It's his team, and so that comes with a responsibility. The critics or people who thought that maybe Gilbert would hinder his development, that's not ever going to be brought up anymore. Hopefully what will happen, too, is he won't ever have to defer to Gilbert, and it will facilitate his learning process."
When Arenas found out about the trade, he was at the home of teammate Nick Young, who is now one of only three Wizards players - along with Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee - who were on the team's roster at this time last year. Young said he was taking a nap when Arenas knocked on his bedroom door. Arenas, who maintains an offseason home in Orlando, told Young, "I'm gone."
"I thought he was going to the store or something," Young said with a laugh. "He was about to get a flight to Orlando. I thought he was playing around. He was all dressed up, bags was packed."
The trade was completed nearly a year after Arenas brought guns to the locker room in a dispute with former teammate Javaris Crittenton. Arenas was forced to serve a 50-game suspension and the team removed his image from the arena and the team's Web site. Grunfeld also expedited the rebuilding process by trading away veterans Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson.
"It never came together," Grunfeld said. "The decision was made to rebuild."
The team then got lucky and landed Wall with the top choice. There was some concern over how Wall and Arenas would mesh, but injuries to both players - especially Wall, who has missed 10 of the first 25 games - have prohibited them from spending much time on the floor together.
"I thought it could have worked. I think more than anything else, where we look, where we're at not just with John but with our team, the development of our young players," Saunders said. "To be where we really want to be and make a run and make a long run, we're a couple years away, and that's going to put Gilbert at the end. If you're going to rebuild, then you need to rebuild."
Young said he thought the move would help Arenas, who had struggled with his role this season, with the team shifting him to shooting guard and shifting focus to Wall.
"He's a good dude, a great player and for everything that happened here, it was kind of tough for him, made it hard on him," Young said. "It came with a lot of difficulty. To see him go home, get a fresh start and be on a winning team, that's something that will be good for him."