They were once the centerpiece of the Washington Wizards, a vaunted Big Three tasked with anchoring an era of deep playoff runs and, possibly, contend for a championship.
Now, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas are on different teams, with different roles and expectations. It didn’t turn out the way any of them expected.
Butler found path to a title
Butler is an NBA champion, having won a ring with the Dallas Mavericks last season. This year, he’s part of the resurgent Los Angeles Clippers. Along with All-Star teammates Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, for the first time in their history, the Clippers are generating as much interest out west as the Lakers. Neck-and-neck in the Pacific Division with their more accomplished rivals, the Clippers are on the rise.
Butler, 32, couldn’t be happier with where his journey has taken him.
“I love the experience,” Butler said. “We’re one of the hottest teams in the NBA. To be a huge part of the transition process here, it’s a great situation.”
Butler also remembers last season fondly.
“It was special. It was a great situation for me,” Butler said. But he remembers the hard times with the Wizards shortly before he was traded and regrets the way things ended in Washington.
“We were the Big Three and all that, then everybody was getting hurt,” he said. “I got hurt, Gil got hurt, Antawn [got hurt] then suddenly, we’re rebuilding. It was a bitter pill to swallow.”
Butler doesn’t see a lot of Wizards games living in Los Angeles but expressed empathy for the team’s plight. He also some advice for Wizards star guard John Wall.
“I’d tell him to work on his leadership skills and remain consistent, because that’s what it’s going to come down to,” Butler said. “Remember these times, because losing hurts. But get better every year, and you won’t have to go through that for the rest of your career.”
Butler speaks from the best kind of experience, that of an NBA champion.
Jamison shipped to Cleveland
The second member of the trio, Jamison, was traded to Cleveland in February 2010, and the Cavaliers made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals that year before losing to the Boston Celtics.
The following year, LeBron James left for Miami and the Cavaliers fell hard, winning just 19 games. Jamison suddenly found himself cast in the role of veteran leader on a rebuilding team. But now, the team has the likely Rookie of the Year in point guard Kyrie Irving - like Wall with the Wizards, perhaps the most important piece in the team’s rebuilding puzzle.
Jamison, 35, is regarded as one of the NBA’s classiest players and best leaders. He knows time is running short to win a ring, but he’s embraced his new role.
“When I was here in D.C., we had a veteran team, a team that had a lot of high hopes,” Jamison said after the Cavaliers played Washington last month. “Unfortunately, with the injuries and outside distractions, we weren’t able to be as successful as we wanted. This is the situation since I’ve been in Cleveland, except for the first month or two. It’s a rebuilding stage. A lot of young guys are here, and we’re just trying to turn things back around.”
Wall occupies the locker Jamison used to have, and Jamison left something behind - a picture of the NBA championship trophy. Jamison smiled when told that Wall kept the picture where Jamison left it.
“He’s becoming a leader,” Jamison said of Wall. “You see him have more of a command when he’s on the court than last year, when he was still learning. He’s improved so much from last year. I think he and Kyrie are going to have epic battles for years to come. They are both great for the NBA.”
The fall of Agent Zero
The one-time leader of the Big Three, the enigmatic and polarizing “Agent Zero,” has had the most difficult road.
Arenas pleaded guilty to a charge of felony gun possession for bringing guns into the Wizards’ locker room in December 2009, and served 30 days in a halfway house, and two years of supervised probation. Arenas also served a 50-game suspension from the NBA. The Wizards wasted no time in removing all traces of Arenas from the building.
When the team drafted Wall the following season, the organization moved quickly to make him the new face of the franchise, and Arenas’ days in Washington were numbered.
Arenas seemed at first to have landed in an ideal spot when the Wizards dealt him to the Orlando Magic, a playoff-contending team, in December 2010.
But Arenas never quite fit into the Magic’s rotation, was not a favorite of coach Stan Van Gundy and soon was relegated to a third-string role. Three knee surgeries in three years finally had taken their toll on the three-time All-Star, and questions continued about Arenas’ mental focus, stability and maturity.
Last December, Arenas found himself out of the league when the Magic used the amnesty provision to release him.
Arenas, 30, spent the next couple of months working out and trying to get back into the league. An audition with the Lakers just before the All-Star break went nowhere, but just after the trading deadline, the Memphis Grizzlies gave Arenas a workout and signed him to a veteran’s minimum deal, worth about $300,000 for the rest of the season.
It’s perhaps Arenas’ last chance to salvage the rest of his career with an improving team that appears playoff-bound He has much to prove, to his critics and himself.
“When I look back on my career, besides a championship, I’ve done more than what people expected of me,” Arenas told the Memphis Commercial Appeal after signing his deal. “When I sit down and think about basketball, I’m back to just loving the game of basketball. I’m about playing it the right way. At this point in my career, I just want to be where someone wants me.”
Memphis does want Arenas, who is averaging 15.1 minutes and 6.0 points off the bench since his debut March 22. That’s a far cry from the heights the 10-year veteran achieved before everything fell apart in D.C.
Three players, three divergent paths, their Big Three days in Washington a distant memory.