- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010

WASHINGTON | After the Washington Wizards’ season finale, Gilbert Arenas’ locker sat virtually empty. It contained two shirts, a couple of pieces of paper and a pink athletics band used to stretch and rehab muscles.

The four guns that caused so much trouble were long gone, and the former occupant was spending the night in a halfway house.

And while Andray Blatche, the undisputed go-to star of the team — an honor he won totally by default — held court with reporters in the center of the locker room, the Wizards’ seasoned ended with the same old question for the fourth consecutive season:

“What’s up with Gil?”

In 2007, Arenas had just injured up his knee. In 2008, his knee still wasn’t completely healed and he was about to become a free agent. In 2009, he finished the season having played only two games but said his knee was finally healed. He vowed to be more serious and said after the season ended: “I don’t go out, I don’t club, I don’t get in trouble, I don’t fight. I just go play basketball and go home.”

Now he’s a convicted felon, having been sentenced to 30 days in the halfway house for bringing guns into the locker room in December as part of what he called a prank to settle an argument over gambling debts with teammate Javaris Crittenton.

Another season was ruined, and the Wizards finished among the dregs of the NBA for the second straight year, going 26-56.

And there seems to be no getting rid of him. Arenas is only two years into a six-year, $111 million contract.

“It’s maybe not what I signed up for originally when I came,” said coach Flip Saunders, finishing his first season with the club.

To his credit, Saunders was quick to add that he’s not jumping ship, that coaches love challenges and that: “Through every adversity, through every challenge, there’s opportunity.”

Then the Wizards should have lots of opportunity.

Not only did this season include the Arenas-Crittenton saga, but beloved longtime owner Abe Pollin died in November. Franchise cornerstones Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood were traded in February. The biggest asset acquired in those deals — Josh Howard — promptly blew out his knee.

But now the possibilities are endless. The Wizards essentially have only six players under contract for next season and $18.7 million of salary cap space to pursue free agents. They also have two picks in the first round of the draft. The Pollin family is selling the team to Ted Leonsis, who will bring his unique vibe and energy to the franchise, as he has already done with the Washington Capitals.

“Right now,” Saunders said, “we have an open canvas.”

Not quite fully open. At the center, once again, will be Arenas. For the fourth year in a row, the Wizards have no choice but to express optimism — whether warranted or not — that he’ll return as the player he once was.

“Gilbert, he’s an All-Star player,” Saunders said. “The whole situation, I’m sure he’s learned from it.”

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