Gilbert Arenas returns to face the Washington Wizards seven weeks after blockbuster trade

Rashard Lewis discusses facing his former team, Orlando, with the media for the first time since Dec. 18 trade. (Feb. 3)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:00 AM

The first blockbuster trade of this NBA season was prompted by the convergence of two situations that had become untenable: the former face of a franchise growing disenchanted on a team undergoing a painful rebuilding process and the face of another franchise growing discouraged by teammates he believed lacked the intestinal fortitude to be champions.

The Washington Wizards looked into parting with Gilbert Arenas last summer, when they reached out to the one man who might be interested in dealing for a player whose salary continued to increase as his reputation had begun to decline through injuries and a gun-related suspension. Orlando Magic General Manager Otis Smith's relationship with Arenas was deeper than basketball, but he initially had no interest in making a move for a player that he had mentored since the two were together in Golden State.

But by mid-December, the Wizards were struggling and Arenas was antsy to get moved. Smith felt compelled to make a deal after the Magic hit an ugly patch in the season that prompted all-star center Dwight Howard to openly question the toughness of his teammates in the locker room after an embarrassing loss in Portland. As the Magic continued to falter, Smith realized that there was irreparable damage in the chemistry that had propelled his team to the Eastern Conference finals the past two seasons, and the NBA Finals in 2009.

So Smith called Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld and asked, "You still interested?"

That question was answered on Dec. 18, when the Wizards dealt Arenas to Orlando after providing entertainment for more than seven years with the organization. And nearly seven weeks later, Arenas will make his return on Friday to Verizon Center in a game that may be one of the more emotional reunions in recent memory for the franchise.

"No matter what happens, he's going to look back on his career and he's going to know that the best times he ever had were in Washington," Wizards Coach Flip Saunders said. "He put a lot of smiles on people's faces in this arena. I think that's something he'll look back and have very fond memories of this place."

A quick exit

Arenas's exodus from Washington was swift, it took less than a week to be consummated. "It happened fairly quickly," Grunfeld said of the negotiations with Orlando. Grunfeld said there were only two players on the Magic roster that the Wizards would consider exchanging for Arenas - Vince Carter or Rashard Lewis - and Smith quickly let Grunfeld know that he was only interested in moving Lewis because Carter was heading somewhere else (which turned out to be Phoenix).

The deal wouldn't have occurred without the approval of Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, who had been adamant since the summer that Arenas wasn't "going anywhere." Leonsis shot down a rumor a few weeks before, expressing support for Arenas.

But according to multiple league sources, Leonsis's position changed when he started to believe Arenas no longer wanted to be in Washington. A person with knowledge of the situation said Leonsis became upset after hearing that Arenas was telling those close to him that a home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers would be his final game in a Wizards uniform and that he was likely headed to Orlando. The comment was a surprise to Leonsis, according to the source, because he was unaware of any trade discussions involving Arenas.

Arenas played the next game, a loss in New Jersey, but was dealt two days later.

Asked what led to Arenas getting traded, Leonsis would only say, "I think Gilbert wanted to be traded. I think Gilbert thought that was a good for him."

The Wizards were never bothered by Arenas's relationship with Smith, a person Arenas refers to as a father figure, and never questioned what topics the two discussed. Although Arenas publicly acknowledged that he asked Smith to come get him, the Wizards never considered investigating the Magic for tampering. The team had been open to dealing him for some time. As one league source said of the trade, "It had to happen."

Smith said after the trade that his relationship with Arenas wasn't the primary reason that he made the deal. "I have a close personal relationship with everybody in that locker room, even some of the guys I traded. You're constantly evaluating. I'm just as close to Jameer [Nelson] and Dwight as I am to [Arenas]. I don't think it matters one way or another. When it's time to move the team forward, you have to do what's in the best interest of the franchise."

'The odd man out'

A person close to Arenas said the three-time all-star never believed that Leonsis was seriously planning to keep him around for the length of his contract, which has three years and nearly $63 million remaining after this season. Arenas, 28, admitted before the deal that he felt like "the odd man out," as the team focused on getting younger and building around No. 1 overall pick John Wall. He struggled playing off the ball and felt the team was headed in a different direction when Saunders utilized him early in the season in a reserve role.

The Wizards felt that acquiring Lewis would help open more opportunities for guard Nick Young while adding another perimeter scorer to assist Wall.

The trade initially left Lewis distraught, as he moved from a title contender to a team likely headed to its third consecutive lottery appearance. He said he was shocked by the trade. People close to Howard felt the center's demeanor was different from past seasons, as his once jovial nature was replaced by a more serious tone, which spilled out during his comments in Portland. The Magic had lost four of five before Smith made the trade.

"It could've been that trip, or maybe it was a combination of different games we won and games we was losing, playing against the Miami Heat, early in the season, got blown out," Lewis said. "You always think about what you could've done. All the time, I think about that, not only that, what could I do different to not be traded, but just in life in general, last year, or what I did in the Finals, or what I could've done last game in New Orleans to win a road game. You always have to look yourself in the mirror and not point the finger at anyone else."

In the 24 games since the trade, the Wizards have made a one-game improvement, going 7-17 after starting the season 6-18 with Arenas. Leonsis said the franchise is moving on. "It's been one of those deals that has allowed us to move past the old Big Three foundation of the team and get on with the rebuild. I'm happy with the trade and I'm happy with the way Rashard Lewis is playing and the influence he's having on the team. I'm wishing Gilbert the best."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company