The Washington Wizards are going to use their number one draft pick to select John Wall, the freshman point guard out of the University of Kentucky. They see Wall as the cornerstone of the franchise for at least “the next decade”, which is why they are going to do everything in their power to prevent the player from ever sharing a locker room with controversial guard Gilbert Arenas, according to two league sources with knowledge of the team’s future plans.
According to one source with intimate knowledge of the team’s plans, the Wizards front office, headed up by President Ernie Grunfeld, doesn’t want Arenas – released earlier this month from a Washington DC halfway house after serving 30 days for a felony gun conviction – anywhere near Wall, whom the team has already decided it will select with the top pick in the June draft. After Arenas was convicted Grunfeld traded away four starters.
One source tagged Arenas as “the reason why a core of players that reached the playoffs” on multiple occasions had to be broken up, “and it was entirely due to what he did. He poisoned the team. He is a cancer.”
The Wizards’ options include trying to trade Arenas, who has four years and more than $80 million in salary remaining on his contract. But that is not the only option. According to a source the team will “definitely consider buying out” Arenas’ contract. This flies in the face of the public position the Wizards have taken with Arenas.
On a radio show Wednesday in Washington, Grunfeld told ESPN 980’s Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro that the Wizards were moving forward with Arenas and willing to put the past behind them.
“Gilbert is part of our team. He has been a very good player for us. He’s back working out, he’s in our facility and we expect him to be with us,” Grunfeld said. “We plan on having him with us and being a very good contributor for us. Nobody feels good about what happened but we are going to try to move forward.”
Don’t be fooled by this. Grunfeld will continue to speak highly of Arenas because as a rule no general manager speaks negatively about a player he is trying to move for fear of looking as though he is about to conduct a fire sale. Secondly, although Arenas is a three-time All Star, he has undergone three knee surgeries and appeared in just 47 games over the last three seasons.
When support for Arenas among the team’s fan base began to wane as the surgeries mounted and the antics never abated — Grunfeld remained steadfast in his belief in Arenas. He originally signed Arenas to a six-year, $65 million deal in 2003 before giving him a new $111 million deal in 2008.
Grunfeld looked past Arenas’ suggestion that it was former coach Eddie Jordan’s fault that Arenas suffered the initial knee injury in 2007 because he was on the floor at the end of the first quarter, when the starters are out. What Arenas failed to mention was that didn’t start in that game because he was being disciplined by Jordan for breaking team rules the day before.
The Wizards and Grunfeld looked the other way and did not punish or discipline Arenas when he defecated in the shoe of Andray Blatche during his rookie season. Blatche, incidentally, became the best player on the team last season after Arenas was suspended by the league for the guns he brought to the locker room.
Grunfeld continued to support Arenas even though there were multiple reports that the relationship between the two had deteriorated beyond repair. Back in January, Sports Illustrated reported that “league sources said Grunfeld was shopping Arenas before the December incident. And Arenas has told confidants that he has no desire to play for Washington again. His relationship with Grunfeld, which was once considered one of the strongest player-executive relationships in the NBA, has eroded to the point that the two have barely spoken over the last two months.”
This just further corroborates what my highly placed sources told me Wednesday. Those same sources told me that the Wizards will take Wall and not Evan Turner, and that the team is not even considering a backcourt of Arenas at the point and Turner, a 6-7 shooting guard still being debated as a possible pick in Washington.
Grunfeld’s job was clearly in jeopardy after the gun incident. However, he has survived what Arenas has wrought in Washington and has been told by new majority owner Ted Leonsis that he will stay on in his position. His trust bucket, as far as Arenas concerned, has been emptied.
This will be Leonsis’ first real step into the sometimes quagmire that is running an NBA franchise. Grunfeld, on the other hand, is an NBA lifer as a player and a front office executive. He knows that the Wizards are in full-fledged rebuilding mode after trading away players such as Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson, players that Grunfeld surrounded around Arenas, once the team’s crown jewel.
And this is why this quote from Grunfeld is so telling.
“Obviously the situation that happened last year, nobody feels good about that. We’re going to try to put that behind us, give everybody a clean slate and move forward. We’re in rebuilding mode. There is a lot of information that we have to let Ted know about what we are doing in the draft. We’re looking for someone who is committed to team and to winning and to doing whatever it takes to accomplish that.”
Grunfeld knows this rebuilding process will not be successful with Arenas as part of the mortar.
John Mitchell is a former Washington Times reporter who has covered the Washington Wizards for over ten years.