- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2008

Gilbert Arenas was a difficult contract call and not merely because of a left knee that has undergone two surgical procedures in the last 15 months.

The rehabilitation of the left knee could be the least of the concerns with Arenas.

If Ernie Grunfeld is willing to bet $111 million on the complete physical recovery of Arenas, that is persuasive enough.

Grunfeld did not throw a bundle of the franchise’s money to placate the team’s fan base.

Those same fans who love Arenas today will not be so loving in the seasons ahead if the Wizards remain unable to win more than 41-45 games a season.

As it is, Grunfeld knows the team is mired in the one-and-done cycle of the playoffs, with injuries being the mitigating circumstance the last two springs. He knows a playoff berth no longer meets the expectations of a region that is desperate to have a serious winner in the NBA.

And he knows that anointing Arenas as the player who will lead the Wizards there is a loaded proposition.

Arenas is not wired to be a leader at this point in his basketball development. He can be both thoughtful and thoughtless, all in a matter of minutes, seemingly without realizing it.

It was fitting in a way that the bookends to last season involved a communication failure of sorts between Arenas and coach Eddie Jordan.

Arenas elected to don his parachute and hold his news conference at the same time as Jordan’s last October before the start of training camp. Arenas then announced he was shutting it down in the playoffs before Game 5 of the Wizards-Cavaliers series, which came as news to Jordan.

The coach also was kept out of the information loop on the night that Arenas, in uniform, strolled out of the locker room in the first quarter and declared he was ready to play late in the regular season.

Arenas was lukewarm around Jordan last summer because of Jordan’s decision to bring him off the bench in the game he first injured his left knee after he was late to the morning shootaround. The two eventually brokered a peace of sorts but not with Arenas coming back into the team fold.

Arenas has grown accustomed to being apart from the team. At least that is the perception outside the organization. And that is an indulgence that has been afforded him on the basis of winning one playoff series in his career.

His indifference on defense has been indulged as well, although Arenas pays lip service to that end of the floor each preseason.

None of this is to imply that Arenas is a bad guy. He is likeable, engaging and smart. And he has matured from the player who was once ejected from a game while in street clothes, once wanted to fight Samuel Dalembert after a game and used to exercise his right not to shoot the ball in the occasional game if teammates were complaining about not getting enough touches.

So far Arenas has shown he can score as proficiently as anyone in the NBA and is fearless in the waning minutes of a tight affair. Beyond that, the decision-making aspect of his development remains unfinished.

That is in part why his fat contract has provoked so much debate. A player with his kind of contract is expected to take a team deep into the playoffs. Not that it always happens. The Kevin Garnett era in Minneapolis surrendered to this reality.

In the end, Arenas accepted less than the maximum contract, perhaps because of the Garnett lesson.

Otherwise, a maximum contract is mostly a team’s way of telling a player, “We really love you.” Implicit in the message is this: You better love us as much in return because we have lost much of our financial flexibility to improve in free agency.

That is especially true with the Wizards, who remain steadfast in avoiding the luxury tax.

So Arenas could become the guy. Or not.

He has a number of peak seasons left in his 26-year-old body.

He has the requisite skill set, the work ethic and athletic gifts.

It is the other stuff in doubt with Arenas: his eccentricities, his goofiness, his sometimes odd communication procedures with Jordan.

Those were not unfair questions with $111 million coming his way.



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