111 million reasons to take a risk

It's been nearly three days since Gilbert Arenas re-signed, and I realize we haven't had much discussion about it, save from the initial FanShot.  That's mostly my fault; I've had trouble getting to the computer during the Holiday weekend. 

So, here goes.

It's clear that every side got what they wanted with this contract.  Arenas may not have received a maximum deal, but he still made out far better than many feel he should have.  He did settle for 16 million less than the max, but keep in mind that he negotiated this contract without an agent, who would have taken about a 10-percent commission on Gilbert's new salary.  Ten percent of 127 million is 12.7 million, so Gilbert would have pocketed only 114.3 million dollars on a max contract.  This way, he gets to keep the entire 111 million. 

Better yet, because he took less money, Arenas' image suddenly improved dramatically.  He can say he was a man of his word; that he's a "team player" because he allowed the front office a little more room under the luxury tax.  He can say he's doing something that nearly every other star won't do, all while still pocketing enough money to keep him set for life even if he gets hurt again. 

Ernie Grunfeld and Abe Pollin got what they wanted too, though.  Ernie got a little more room under the luxury tax to take the sting off some of the mistakes he's made to get to this point.  Depending on how the official numbers shake out, he might have enough money to bring Roger Mason back or, better yet, find the backup small forward we desperately need (I'm hoping for the latter).  Abe wins because he has a team that's ready to contend right now, even if they haven't been able to really contend in the past.  He won't have to suffer through a rebuilding project as his health diminishes.

The only thing left to determine is whether the Wizards get what they want, i.e. a deep playoff run with this group.  The answer to that question is something nobody can definitively say right now.  There's just not enough evidence of the Arenas/Butler/Jamison trio being healthy to determine its ceiling. All we really have is the end of 2006, when Butler finally broke into the starting lineup, and the first three months of 2007, before Jamison's injury, Butler's nagging problems, and Arenas and Butler's season-ending woes. 

What do we have there?  In 2006, the Wizards started slowly, but came on strong at the end of the season once Butler started to emerge.  They lost to the Cavaliers in the first round, but that series could have gone either way.  In 2007, the Wizards were near the top of the Eastern Conference before Antawn's injury, though there were plenty of caveats.  The conference was really down (nobody won more than 53 games in 2007), the Wizards were playing terrible defense, Arenas was hitting shots at a ridiculous rate and the Wizards' point differential was close to even.  Then again, that team also had to deal with feuding centers and a bench that really only had two capable reserves (AD and Etan/Haywood).

And...that's it.  Many detractors will point to this year's series against Cleveland as further evidence of the Big 3's collective shortcomings.  All three of them played, and the Wizards could only win when Arenas sat out.  But Arenas was severely hurt during this series, and since the Wizards had completely changed their style without him, they weren't able to adjust to his presence in such a short amount of time.  Those may sound like excuses, but I don't see why we should place too much emphasis on that one playoff series.  Even if we did, we have to consider the fact that, without Arenas in a must-win Game 6 on their home court, the Wizards completely laid an egg.

The point here is that nobody can really say this team's ceiling has been met.  Sure, they haven't won a single series together, but there was only one in which they were fully healthy.  Framing it in a "status quo" sort of way is silly.  We haven't seen a healthy Gilbert Arenas with this group of Wizards.  The last time it happened was in December of 2006, and that group took off, even though the team's depth stunk.

So let's stick to what we do know.  We know that, no matter how many times pundits and bloggers will claim that Arenas isn't worth this amount of money, the market said he was.  Golden State was prepared to offer Arenas a maximum contract despite all the shortcomings anyone wants to trot out.  Arenas could have received as much money as he possibly could have made there, albeit for one less year.  If the Wizards offered less than the maximum, Arenas could have just signed Golden State's more lucrative package, and the Wizards would have had nothing to show for it.  A sign-and-trade possibility probably wouldn't have worked either, not with the Warriors' ability to get Arenas without giving anything up.  Gilbert's knee problems may not have killed his free agent market value, but they surely would have killed his sign-and-trade value, with teams far less willing to give up players for a twice-injured Arenas than giving up cap room.

We also know that if the Wizards let Arenas go, they would not have been able to replace him with a top-notch free agent this year.  After re-signing Jamison, the Wizards' team salary was 54 million.  With the salary cap set at 58 million, they could only have used the mid-level and low-level exceptions to improve the roster.  The only thing that would have been gained is extra room under the luxury tax.  I don't know about you, but I'd rather have Arenas than extra space under the tax.

The only other option, besides the remote possibility of a sign-and-trade, would have been to let both Arenas and Jamison go.  The Wizards would have had around 14 million dollars under the salary cap.  Presumably, their nucleus would have been Butler, a marquee free agent (e.g. Corey Maggette), Brendan Haywood, a bunch of veteran role players, and a bunch of young guys who aren't there yet.  Worse yet, that would have likely been their roster for the next two years, since the Wizards have no contracts that expire after this season.  None of us know how long it would have taken for Ernie to rebuild the roster, but we know that he wouldn't be doing it around a dynamic young stud.  He'd be doing it around Butler, an outstanding player in his own right, but one who's 28, not 23 or 24.  By the time that group is ready to contend again, Butler might be past his prime. 

So with all those alternatives out there, I'm confident when I say that re-signing Arenas and Jamison at all costs is the best move out there.  It's not a perfect move, not by any stretch.  Arenas needs to be healthy, first and foremost.  If he is, he needs to be a better teammate than he was this past season.  He needs to become more committed defensively as well.  Jamison needs to continue to beg off Father Time and show that his renewed commitment to playing inside wasn't just the result of a contract-year push.  Additionally, because of our lack of cap flexibility, either Ernie's going to have to get even more creative, or Abe is going to have to shove off his notoriously frugal ways and allow Ernie to go over the luxury tax to bring Abe the title he so desperately wants.

It's a situation full of risks, and the price it costs makes those risks even greater.  But considering the alternatives, I don't see any other way that makes more sense.

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