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Gilbert Arenas, Wizard

3/2/2010

Stephen Jackson has been hailed as the best thing to happen to the Charlotte Bobcats. Ron Artest was the score of the summer for the defending champion Lakers.

Both committed something like career suicide by starring in the Auburn Hills fracas in which both ventured into the stands to fight Pistons fans. And both live on in the NBA, where time might not heal everything, but it can certainly heal a lot -- especially if you're a skilled basketball player.

Gilbert Arenas, meanwhile, did some really dumb things, but did not injure or strike anybody. It's not hard to think that he will return to not just play in the NBA, but to once again be a beloved player.

And today he surprised many by telling The Associated Press that when he does return to the NBA, he'd have no trouble pulling on a Wizards uniform again:

"I have no problem," Arenas said. "Basketball is basketball. I don't think people realize that. No matter what city, overseas, D-league, park league -- I just want to play."

Then again, Arenas noted that his future with the Wizards is not up to him. He's in only the second season of a six-year, $111 million contract.

"That's up to the city and the owners," Arenas said. "It's out of my hands."

In the immediate aftermath of his gun incident, it was conventional wisdom that Arenas would never again play in Washington, D.C. Too much bad blood all around. Arenas has missed so many games with repeated major injuries. He has declined as a player. And he made a mockery of the anti-gun legacy of the recently deceased owner, Abe Pollin, by bringing guns to the locker room.

Also, the team had distanced itself from him in every way imaginable, and if his feelings were bruised in seeing the team remove his likeness from the arena while he was still under contract, that would be understandable.

But bizarre as reconciliation may have once seemed, that was always the most likely scenario. As we discussed on TrueHoop at the end of January, because of the $80 million left on Arenas' $111 million contract, there's simply no reasonable way for the Wizards and Arenas to part ways. Here are some reasons he won't be traded anytime soon:

  • Arenas is one of the NBA's worst defenders. Synergy Sports tracks every NBA play. At the time of Arenas' original suspension, he was rated the worst defender among the 107 players with at least 300 plays as an on-ball defender.

  • John Hollinger has demonstrated that tall players age better than short players. Listed at 6-4, but measured at just over 6-2 in socks when he was drafted, Gilbert Arenas is in the category of smaller players who usually need athleticism to thrive. At 28, Arenas is at an age when a lot of players begin slowing down.

  • The health of Arenas' left knee is uncertain. In the two seasons prior to this one, he played a total of 15 games, through a series of surgeries. This season he was averaging 23 points and seven assists, which are exceptional numbers, but well below the elite level he played in 2006-2007, and even then his field goal percentage was low. Those injuries appear to have robbed him of much of the explosiveness that defined his most productive years.

  • The six-year, $111 million contract he signed in 2008 is one of the biggest in NBA history, and extends through the 2013-2014 season.

  • The economy is bad and money is tighter than it has been. And in addition, there are noises that the next collective bargaining agreement could be the most restrictive ever for salaries, which could make this indulgence more painful as time wears on.

  • Some superstars age gracefully into becoming role players, which may be a way for Arenas to stick around. However, thus far in his career, he has shown no such inclination.

So, if not a trade, how about some other way to divorce? It's unlikely the Wizards could successfully void his contract, and there may be league-wide political reasons they wouldn't even consider trying. If they offer him a buyout, he'll have no reason to offer the team any meaningful discount -- and without a big discount, the Wizards would have his massive contract count against their salary cap, essentially dooming the team through the 2013-2014 season. The same is true if they were to waive him -- they can get him off the roster, but that contractual obligation and its cap implications remain.

Meanwhile, the Wizards' roster is nearly entirely different. It's a new day, a new mood, a new setting. The Wizards are likely to have new owners soon, and a new rebuilding project is already under way on the court, as the Wizards are collecting cap space and draft picks.

Next fall, Arenas would be returning as a player who paid more than $7 million in lost income and served whatever sentence the judge doles out on March 26, essentially for a practical joke.

It's not hard to believe he'll be in a strong position to make a strong case that he has lived and learned. In time, the team might be more accepting, and so could Arenas. Will the Wizards and Arenas patch things up? Ernie Grunfeld said last month that "if he wants to play, he's going to play here."

Even if there are 29 teams Arenas would prefer to play for, he'd still be smart to show up with his body, and his smile, in tip-top form next fall. If he can prove to people that he's a good guy who still plays good basketball, maybe the Wizards will be able to trade him at some point in the next year or two -- maybe to one of those teams that has cleared cap space for LeBron James but doesn't get him.

No matter where he wants to play, Arenas' best move is to try to restore his standing with the Wizards, which will take months or even years.

When challenges arise in patching up those relationships -- with management, with teammates, with fans -- there will always be 80 million reasons for Arenas to keep trying.