- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

The Washington Wizards yesterday declined to match a five-year, $30million offer from the New York Knicks to free agent forward Jared Jeffries.

“We said we were going to explore all of our options when we received the offer sheet, and we have decided not to match the offer,” president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said. “As we looked at everything and we explored our options, we saw that there were other opportunities for us.”

Jeffries was considered the Wizards’ best defender last season and started 77 games, helping the team to a second straight playoff berth.

The Wizards’ decision not to match the offer was first reported by The Washington Times in yesterday’s editions.

Jeffries will receive an up-front payment of 80 percent of the more than $5.2million he will get in the first year of his contract.

The Wizards now regard themselves as a team that, as front office executives of other teams have said, is building to reach the conference finals and the NBA Finals. The team made only one offer to Jeffries, a six-year contract worth $33million. Had they signed him, the Wizards would have spent precious money they now say they might use instead for a big free agent signing in seasons to come.

The team won’t have much maneuverability under the salary cap next summer. However, the Wizards should have more money available to spend on free agents in the summer of 2008. The thinking now is to build rapidly around the team’s cornerstone player, star guard Gilbert Arenas.

“We are building towards winning the championship,” Grunfeld said. “How quickly we get there only time will tell, but that is our ultimate goal. You have to take steps to achieve that goal.

“I think we showed last year that we can compete with anybody in the league when we are playing up to our abilities. And I think that we have made some solid additions that are really going to help us in what we are trying to do as far as getting tougher.”

The departure of Jeffries, the 11th pick in the 2002 draft, marks the second straight year a Wizards team weak on defense lost its best defender to free agency. All-NBA defender Larry Hughes was signed by the Cleveland Cavaliers last season.

Jeffries averaged 6.1 points and 4.8 rebounds in four seasons with the Wizards. As versatile as he was on defense, Jeffries never demonstrated the offensive ability he showed in his two seasons at Indiana University.

The Wizards appear to like the players they have added in Jeffries’ place. Over the weekend, they signed DeShawn Stevenson to a two-year deal — he’ll earn close to $1million this season but can opt out after that — in what could turn into a bargain.

The 6-foot-5 guard started all 82 games for the Orlando Magic last season, averaging 11.0 points. He is considered to be an above-average defender. The Wizards earlier signed smooth-shooting forward Darius Songaila to a five-year contract.

The team hopes those moves and the impressive summer turned in by 6-foot-11 Andray Blatche — at times, he dominated the Las Vegas summer league — translate into a better team next season.

“Last year we added Caron Butler and Antonio Daniels,” Grunfeld said. “This year we brought in Darius Songaila and DeShawn Stevenson, and we’re developing our own players as well. We like the direction that we’re headed.”

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