By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 9:24 PM
About 90 minutes before the Washington Wizards played the Chicago Bulls on Monday night, Coach Flip Saunders ruled out playing Al Thornton since he was unable to practice after missing the previous three games with a sprained left ankle. Inside the locker room, Thornton was lacing up his sneakers, preparing for the game and was stunned when he was informed that Saunders didn't plan on using him.
"I'm playing," Thornton said. "Far as I know, I'm playing."
When the Wizards submitted their roster about an hour later, Thornton was on the inactive list. At the time, Thornton was unaware that his agent, Bill Duffy, was already deep into buyout negotiations with Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, who decided that it was best not to risk the fourth-year small forward getting hurt before he was eventually released.
Thornton ended practice on Tuesday with a baseline jumper and grimaced while holding his recently dislocated right middle finger. It would prove to be his last shot as a member of the Wizards, because Thornton agreed to a buyout with the team later in the afternoon.
With Rashard Lewis arriving in the Gilbert Arenas trade, Josh Howard returning from a left knee injury and the Wizards adding two wing players in Jordan Crawford and Maurice Evans in the Kirk Hinrich trade, Thornton had fallen out of the rotation.
"We kind of came to a mutual conclusion that they had a lot of depth at that position and Al hasn't had a chance to create traction for himself," Thornton's agent, Bill Duffy, said in a telephone interview. "The mutual determination was this wasn't going to go very far."
Thornton would've become a restricted free agent next summer, but the Wizards did not consider him to be a part of their plans going forward. They acquired him from the Los Angeles Clippers in a three-team trade involving Antawn Jamison at the trade deadline last season.
The Wizards (15-44) actively tried to move Thornton last week but a person with knowledge of the negotiations said teams were unwilling to offer much in return given his various injuries this season.
According to two people with knowledge of the situation, Thornton agreed to give back $400,000 to hit the free agent market now. Another league source said Thornton plans to sign with the Golden State Warriors - whom the Wizards host on Wednesday at Verizon Center - when he clears waivers on Thursday.
The move with Thornton comes a day after point guard Mike Bibby sacrificed his entire $6.2 million salary in 2011-12 in a buyout agreement that allowed him to become a free agent. Bibby's agent, David Falk, said his client will sign with the Miami Heat when he clears waivers on Wednesday. The Heat created a roster spot for Bibby when it waived point guard Carlos Arroyo.
"He's going to Miami. He'll clear waivers and he'll sign, yes," Falk said. "When we discussed the buyout, I asked him, if you could go to any team, without hesitation, he said Miami. Not because of the weather. He thinks it's the best chance to win a championship and make a significant impact on winning a championship."
Bibby had no desire to finish his career as part of a rebuilding situation, but Thornton entered this season hoping to have a breakout season. Instead, he had injuries and was inconsistent, which pushed him deeper into irrelevance with the team. Thornton was averaging career lows of eight points and 3.1 rebounds as his unorthodox style of play failed to fit into Saunders's offensive system. He also dealt with a sprained left ankle and a dislocated finger that kept him from working his way back.
"He fell out of the rotation because we added some players at his position as the season progressed," Grunfeld said. There was a logjam at the three spot and obviously, Al wanted to get more minutes and as the conversation went along, we didn't think he'd get back in this rotation as long as these players are around. This allows him to pursue other opportunities in a place where he can get significant minutes that he's looking for. Al's a good guy and we wish him the best."
The Wizards have 14 players on the roster, but Grunfeld said the team doesn't have any plans to replace Thornton soon.
Crawford and Evans both practiced with the team for the first time on Tuesday. Evans expressed some surprise that his former teammate Bibby was willing to sacrifice so much money to chase a championship.
"I'm like, 'Bib, you could've gave it to me. I'll play for it,' " Evans said with a laugh. "But I understand where he's at in his career and where he wants to go. But it's a huge gamble, even going to Miami or whatever, you have to put in that work."
Wizards notes: Saunders's availability is uncertain for the Warriors. He missed practice on Tuesday to tend to his ailing 90-year-old mother, Kay, who is in intensive care in suburban Cleveland. . . . John Wall was named Eastern Conference rookie of the month for February.