Monday, June 26, 2006

Desiring to play for a championship contender, Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas will seriously consider opting out of his contract in 2008 if he doesn’t feel the franchise is committed to building a title-caliber team, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.

“Gil has made it clear to me that his number one priority is to play for championships,” said Dan Fagan, Arenas’ agent. “Right now the Wizards aren’t a championship-caliber team. But we are confident that [president of basketball operations] Ernie Grunfeld can put one together.”

Arenas, 24, said he would like to have his jersey retired in Washington. But heading into the fourth year of his six-year, $65 million deal, the two-time All-Star wants to make sure the Wizards are progressing toward a championship before he makes a long-term commitment to the club.

The Wizards this season reached the playoffs for the second straight year, ending a league-high streak of 18 seasons in which the franchise failed to make consecutive postseason appearances.

But Arenas saw the Wizards’ loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round as a step back from the previous season. Washington defeated the Chicago Bulls in the first round in 2005 before losing to Shaquille O’Neal and the Miami Heat in the second.

“I don’t want to take a step back,” he said. “It’s hard to recover from that sometimes.”

Arenas said he wants to spend his prime years knowing he will compete for a championship every year. Washington last won a championship in 1978 and is not considered a threat to win the Southeast Division, let alone compete for a championship.

“That is what I play this game for,” Arenas said. “Ninety-five percent of the players in this league want to win a championship more than anything else. I won’t be happy just making it to the playoffs every year and that’s it. I want to compete for a championship in my young years.”

Arenas has had multiple conversations with teammates concerning his future in Washington.

“We’ve talked about it,” said forward Jared Jeffries, a soon-to-be restricted free agent. “They have a chance to build something big in Washington with Gil. He can do so many things on the court and he gets better each year.

“But Gil knows that the window [to win a title] is small. He’ll be in the prime of his career in the next few years. I know he wants to play for a championship more than anything.”

The Wizards can offer Arenas an extension next summer. If at that time Arenas is not satisfied with the Wizards’ progress, he could let the team know he intends to opt out of his contract and allow the team to consider trading him.

Such was the case with Tracy McGrady and the Orlando Magic.

The Magic went 42-40 during the 2002-03 season — the same record the Wizards had last season — and lost to Detroit in the first round of the playoffs. The next season, Orlando won just 21 games.

Sensing the Magic would not acquire the players necessary to compete for a championship, McGrady declined to negotiate an extension and eventually was traded to the Houston Rockets.

The Wizards generally are considered a good team, though one with significant defensive shortcomings. But unless they upgrade at a few positions — especially in the frontcourt — the Wizards could be stuck in a situation similar to the one in which they found themselves in in the 2005-06 season: barely making the playoffs.

“They’ve done a good job building it to this point,” said one agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Now the question is are they willing to make the commitments necessary to take it to the next level? Look at Miami and Dallas. They went out and put very good players around their superstars.

“On the other hand, look at a guy like Kevin Garnett. Are you telling me that he’s not a great player? Of course not. But it’s highly unlikely that he’s ever going to win a championship.”

The Heat last week won their first championship by teaming Shaquille O’Neal with 24-year-old Dwyane Wade the past three seasons. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has his critics, but he has spent money — perhaps even overpaid — to surround Dirk Nowitzki, 28, with arguably the deepest and most talented roster in the league.

Arenas also has indicated he would be disappointed if coach Eddie Jordan does not receive a contract extension. Jordan is in the final year of his contract.

“I’ll even say, if he’s not here I don’t want to be here,” Arenas said after the playoff loss to Cleveland. “I’ll even go that far. That’s how badly I want him here.”

Failing to keep Arenas would be nothing short of disastrous.

Arenas averaged 29.3 points a game last season, fourth-best in the NBA and second in franchise history to Walt Bellamy’s 31.6 average in 1962.

He scored at least 40 points 11 times during the regular season — third in the league behind Kobe Bryant (27) and Allen Iverson (15). He ranked second in the league in 3-point baskets made (199).

Considering that the Milwaukee Bucks’ Michael Redd received a maximum contract ($90 million) when he re-signed with that club in the last offseason, there is little doubt Arenas will be looking at a big deal as well.

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