A couple days ago, Gilbert Arenas announced that after next season, he’s going to opt out of his current contract with the Wizards and hit the free agent market. Without a doubt, he’ll be the biggest free agent name in 2008, and several teams will do their best to try and lure Arenas their way.
Michael Wilbon wrote a great article for the Washington Post on Tuesday discussing how Arenas’s decision makes sense for him financially, and how his announcement gives the Wizards the chance to show him why he should want to stay in Washington. There’s no argument to deny the fact that Arenas wants a larger contract, and so far he definitely deserves one. Instead of staying with his current contract at six years worth $65 million, Arenas can choose to sign a larger contract with another team, and if he stays with the Wizards, he can sign a six-year deal potentially worth more than $100 million. Without a doubt, Arenas has earned the right for a superstar-like contract and has played exceptionally well over the last few years.
But exactly how much is Arenas worth? As Wilbon also described, the Wizards are a perfect fit for Arenas. In Eddie Jordan’s Princeton style sets, the Wizards offense is constantly in motion, and Arenas can do as he pleases. Everyone on the team defers to Arenas, with the only possible exception being Brendan Haywood, who only has recently complained of playing time and a lack of respect by Jordan. But even in this system that completely benefits Arenas and plays to his offensive strengths, the Wizards have not gotten past the second round of the playoffs since Arenas has been in Washington. The team has obviously improved with Arenas on the team, with the Wizards being in the playoffs at all is the only evidence really needed. But even with an improved supporting cast featuring Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Darius Songaila, Antonio Daniels, and DeShawn Stevenson, the Wizards never seemed like a team capable of taking over the league, let alone the Eastern Conference, which as this season has shown can be pretty pathetic at times.
Arenas is a tremendously gifted offensive player with a seemingly heroic capability to perform well in the clutch when games are on the line. He never shies away from taking the big shot, which is a quality that should be rewarded since only a select few in the NBA have this unique ability. However, since the team is also built around him, and since the Wizards have been unable to find the right kinds of players around Arenas who not only fit the system but also can rebound and play defense, the Wizards struggle against the elite teams in the league. The tail end of the season and the subsequent sweep in the first round of the playoffs may be a bad example this year because of the injuries to Arenas and Butler, but the Wizards frequently lose to teams such as the Heat, Pistons and Cavaliers because of their inability to get solid play from their big men. It also doesn’t really help that, all too frequently, the Wizards just can’t stop anyone else on defense, especially when the game is on the line. Often the Wizards win games when they have the ball for the last possession and lose games when their subpar defense is forced to hold a lead.
While the defensive ability of the Wizards seems pretty terrible at times, the Wizards are in much better shape with Arenas than without him. The Wizards need Arenas. His character and unique behavior bring so much more to this team than possibly any other player in the NBA could for his team, and he’s brought much more attention to the Wizards than ever really thought possible. Arenas has carried the Wizards on his back, and now the Wizards have earned some respect instead of being one of the laughingstocks of the NBA. Instead of being the team that got rid of Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton, and Chris Webber and traded for such quality players as Ike Austin, Mitch Richmond, and Christian Laettner, the Wizards began to win games again and gain a better, winning image. Arenas has been the biggest piece in the Wizards’ transformation.
Arenas will undoubtedly be an all-star for years to come, and he’ll make tons of money. And despite all of that, Arenas still wants to win more than anything else. He may act goofy at times, he may pull crazy pranks on his teammates, he may say very strange things and have odd quotes in the media, but he wants to win. He’s not afraid to be the person who he truly is, even if he’s very different than what a typical athlete is supposed to be, or whatever that means. I’m just not sure if he believes the Wizards can be that team he can win with and push to be one of the best teams in the NBA. I’m not sure if they can be either.
Again, this past season is not the best example to use, but with Arenas and Butler making the all-star team, the Wizards still only finished seventh in the weak Eastern Conference. And at times, the Wizards looked either awesome or terrible, no matter how weak an opponent was. The inability to punish less talented teams and crush short-handed competition is not the kind of consistency needed to be an elite team, and whether the problem is coaching, role players, defense, or any other possibilities, the Wizards have never really seemed like a team that could compete for an NBA title.
While the thought of Arenas possibly leaving the Wizards has left me terrified for the near future, I still believe that the Wizards can improve and play great basketball and make Arenas want to stay. The best part of Arenas’s declaration to opt out after next season is that there is still time for Jordan and Grunfeld to work together on compiling the right mix of players to try and max out the potential that this team has. The team must decide which players to draft, and they need to figure out which players to keep on the team. Will the team bring back Jarvis Hayes and DeShawn Stevenson? Will they sign Andray Blatche to a long-term deal? Will they bring back Brendan Haywood? What position(s) are the Wizards looking to upgrade in the draft? All of these questions need to be answered, and to keep Arenas in Washington, the personnel to help him should be significantly upgraded to go along with Arenas, Jamison, and Butler. The Wizards could really use a big man to control the paint, play defense, and grab rebounds to compliment the scoring that the big three provides.
Amidst all the confusion and shock involved with Arenas’s recent notice to opt out in 2008, he has also repeatedly vowed to improve his defense in the offseason. I fully believe that Arenas can do anything he puts his mind to, and I’m sure he can find multiple ways to motivate himself going into both next season and next year’s free agent market. Most fans in Washington would hate to see Arenas leave after all the hope and excitement that he’s brought to the area after so many down years for the Bullets/Wizards.
The last thing the Wizards need is a franchise player leaving the team after bringing some recent success, leaving fans hungry for more. There’s a lot riding on Arenas’s decision and hopefully he isn’t making this decision by flipping a coin a few times.
But this is Gilbert Arenas after all. Who really knows what he’ll do next?