Saturday, June 9, 2007

Washington Wizards All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas said yesterday that he will opt out of the final year of his contract next summer and explore the free agent market.

“I’m going to opt out and consider some other teams next year,” Arenas said in a telephone interview. “I want to test the market and test my value.”

Arenas, who signed a six-year, $64 million deal with the team in the summer of 2003, could sign a three-year extension this summer that would kick in at the end of his current deal, which expires at the end of the 2008-09 season.

But Arenas, who does not have an agent — and yesterday said he still had no plans to hire one — said he will not sign an extension this summer.

Arenas said his decision is strictly a business one, and that he is using the player option in his contract as a means to maximize his earnings. He also said that his decision is based mostly on the births of his two children — two-month-old son Alijah and 16-month-old daughter Izelah.

“I have children now and I want to make the right decision for them,” Arenas said. “I am not going to have my legs forever, but I have them right now. At the end of the day, I might as well capitalize on everything I can while I have the legs to do it.

“I’m not opting out to leave. I’m opting out to sign.”

If Arenas did sign an extension this summer, the first season under the extension would be in the $13 million range with annual raises. However, by opting out next summer, Arenas — viewed by most as a maximum-deal player — would begin the first year of his contract earning more than $14 million.

The Wizards, should they choose to sign Arenas to a max deal, can trump any team’s offer because they can sign him for six years, whereas he can sign with a new team for only five.

Additionally, another team must have the salary cap room to sign Arenas. If there is no such team, the Wizards could trade Arenas in a sign-and-trade deal.

Arenas first went public with the idea of opting out of his contract last summer. Then, he indicated that the was most important thing as far as keeping him in Washington would be an indication that the team was moving in the right direction.

However, the Wizards, who lost both Arenas (torn left meniscus) and fellow All-Star Caron Butler (hand) for the final two weeks of the regular season and the playoffs, have had progressively worse records in the last three seasons.

Three seasons ago, the Wizards won 45 games and reached the second round of the playoffs. But they have been eliminated in the first round in the last two seasons by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last season, the Wizards won 42 games and this season 41 before being swept by the Cavaliers.

“You are a little disappointed now,” Arenas said. “At the end of the day, you’re still in the first round. You get frustrated because you wonder if you are taking forward steps or if you are going backward. Our overall record is not looking better. We didn’t have any more wins this year than we did last year.”

There are some around the league who question whether Arenas is the type of player who can lead a team to a championship. This year, even Wizards coach Eddie Jordan expressed that Arenas, 25, had not grown into a leader.

What Arenas has grown into is one of the best young players in the league. A two-time All-NBA selection, Arenas finished third in the league in scoring (28.4), led the Wizards in assists (6.0), and finished 10th in the league in steals.

He also set the franchise single-game scoring record with 60 points last season on Dec. 17, 2006 against the Los Angeles Lakers. Three games later, he scored 54 points in an overtime win at the Phoenix Suns.

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