Washington Wizards move in a new direction, freeing up money as NBA free agency looms

Guard Shaun Livingston is among the free agents the Wizards are considering bringing back after signing him late this season.
Guard Shaun Livingston is among the free agents the Wizards are considering bringing back after signing him late this season. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Shortly after the Washington Wizards realized that they weren't going to have Gilbert Arenas's services for the remainder of the season, team President Ernie Grunfeld sat down with the Pollin family to inform them that it was time to take action and move the franchise in another direction.

Although the team had a nearly $78 million payroll and was going to pay the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax for the first time, Robert Pollin -- son of the late Wizards patriarch Abe Pollin -- told Grunfeld that finances were not a concern. The family did not want to pressure Grunfeld into making cost-cutting moves if he believed that a team built around Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison could still be competitive the following season.

"Ernie said the opposite," Robert Pollin recalled in a telephone interview. "He was really saying, 'It's not going to happen with this group. It's time to start fresh.' I said. 'Do you really feel this?' He said, 'It's really the right thing to do.' There really wasn't any disagreement."

It took Grunfeld less than a week to trade away Butler, Jamison, Brendan Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson and Dominic McGuire in moves that got the Wizards below the luxury tax line this season -- and created a situation in which the team has nearly $18.7 million in salary cap space to become a major player in free agency this summer.

The Wizards will play their final game of the season Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers at Verizon Center, but the organization has been focused on next season ever since Grunfeld detonated the roster at the trade deadline. What happens after Wednesday will be based largely on the direction the franchise takes once it transfers from the Pollin family to prospective owner Ted Leonsis.

But whether or not the Wizards decide to use their available money to pursue a big-money free agent such as Atlanta's Joe Johnson, Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire or Memphis's Rudy Gay; retain any of their own 11 free agents; or save the money for next summer -- when Carmelo Anthony could potentially become available -- Grunfeld likes to remind people, "We have options."

The Wizards (25-56) are tied with Golden State for the fourth-worst record in the NBA and could wind up with no worse than the ninth overall pick in the upcoming draft. They also have the 30th overall pick, acquired from Cleveland in the Jamison deal, and a potentially high second-round choice.

The deadline deals also created two trade exceptions worth $4.5 million and $6 million, which the Wizards could use to acquire players from other rosters without sacrificing talent. "We have a lot of flexibility. We can go a lot of different ways," Grunfeld said in a recent interview in his Verizon Center office. "Just because you have cap room doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to use all of our powder this summer. If the right opportunity is out there, then it is something we'll do. We're going to have to wait and see what happens."

Some of the bigger-name free agents, such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, are unlikely to come to a rebuilding situation in Washington. Grunfeld has said that he doesn't have to make a large splash in free agency, with the Wizards already set to welcome back Arenas and with Coach Flip Saunders helping to develop players such as Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Shaun Livingston.

Livingston, a late-season pickup, is among several free agents the Wizards are considering bringing back. Randy Foye, Mike Miller and Josh Howard, whom they acquired in a trade with Dallas, are also on the team's radar.

If the Wizards decide to go after a big-money free agent, Stoudemire and Johnson are expected to be in the mix, with the Wizards having past trade talks with Phoenix about Stoudemire and Johnson among the players with whom Arenas has long wanted to share a back court. When asked about the possibility of coming to Washington, Johnson said recently, "Guys who are free agents, everybody is an option. You can't really count a team out. They've got a good young team here. A lot of great young pieces, so I'm sure guys will look into it."

Johnson has played with Arenas before, when the two participated for Team USA in the summer of 2006, and has considered the possibility of them as teammates. "I thought about it. I'm pretty familiar with Gilbert," Johnson said. "You never know what could happen. It's not far-fetched. Anything is possible."

Arenas is currently serving a 30-day sentence in a halfway house for his felony gun conviction last month. The Pollin family did not want to pursue terminating the final four years and $80 million remaining on his contract. Grunfeld said Arenas will not have trouble regaining his form after playing just 47 games the past three seasons. "He came back from an injury and played very good basketball," Grunfeld said about Arenas, who averaged 22.7 points and 7.2 assists in 32 games this season. "This is not an injury situation. He's still a very young player. We expect him to be a very effective player."

Saunders is already planning for Arenas's return, having installed a new two-guard offense in the final three weeks of the season to take some of the pressure off Arenas as the sole decision-maker on offense. For the first time since his first season in Minnesota, Saunders has directed a lottery-bound team, but he said he is encouraged by the possibility of a rapid turnaround.

"I'm not going into next year saying we're not going to make the playoffs," said Saunders, who is near the completion of the first year of a four-year, $18 million contract. "Now, would I feel as good as I feel if I hadn't seen the development of Dray, and Shaun and Nick and JaVale? Those guys have proven that they are rotation players. You're adding some really good rookies to that, some free agents. We've got to jump some teams, but I don't think that's something that can't happen."

The ownership situation has yet to be determined but Grunfeld is working under the assumption that he will be back, since he is under contract for the next two seasons after this one and has already rebuilt teams in New York, Milwaukee and Washington.

"I think what Ernie did at the deadline is really remarkable," Pollin said. "The moves we made gave us a lot of positive expectations for the future, which we would not have had. If we had come back and said, 'We didn't make it this year, but we have the guys coming back and Gilbert is going to be better' -- it just was not a convincing story. But I think this a convincing story. We certainly have the potential to move right back into the upper tier, in my opinion."

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