Editor’s Note: In 2003, the Wizards made dramatic changes to their front office and roster that have shaped the course of the franchise ever since. This week, we’re going to take a look back at how the events of 2003 altered the trajectory of the franchise—for better and worse over the past 15 years.
In 2003, with Michael Jordan’s retirement and dismissal as President of Basketball Operations, the Wizards needed a new direction and that direction came in the form of one of the league’s most unique superstars, Gilbert Arenas.
There is no doubt there have been ups and downs during Ernie Grunfeld’s time in the Wizards’ front office, particularly with signing free agents, but his best signing in Washington was undoubtedly his first; signing Gilbert Arenas in the summer of 2003.
At the time, I was just graduating high school and on my way to college out of state in the fall. I knew my time following the team would be limited but I still wanted to come home during my holiday breaks and see a competitive team, better than anything I experienced while growing up watching them.
Seeing Jordan leave in the manner that he did made me angry and hopeless about the franchise’s ability to be a winner. So when I initially heard of the Wizards interest in Arenas, I was excited because I thought it was an opportunity to get a great player of the likes this team has never had, since they never seemed to get prized free agent players.
And no, this is not to say that Gilbert Arenas is a better player than Paul Pierce or even Michael Jordan (come on!), but it is to say that he had a greater impact on the court in Washington than those players and for that, the initial signing of Gilbert Arenas has been Grunfeld’s best move in Washington.
Arenas emerges on the scene
The Golden State Warriors selected Arenas in the second round with the 31st overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft, that was headlined by Kwame Brown. Coming out of college, he was not highly regarded because he was too small to play shooting guard and people didn’t think he could pass well enough to be a traditional point guard. Ironically enough, his size and skillset have become a prototype of sorts for the modern day point guard, who are now asked to be scoring and passing threats.
Arenas broke out in his second year with Golden State after only playing in 47 games his rookie season. He played and started in all 82 games, averaging 18.3 points per game and earning the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award in the process. He went off for a then career-high 41 points in a late March game against the Jordan and the Wizards.
Arenas hits free agency
His breakout season put the Warriors in a bit of a pickle. Golden State had signed Arenas to a two-year deal after the draft, which made him eligible for restricted free agency in the summer of 2003. Problem was, the Warriors were already over the cap. They were paying big money to the likes of Nick Van Exel, Erick Dampier, and Avery Johnson, which presented a serious issue, as CBA FAQ details:
Before 2005 it was sometimes possible to sign restricted free agents to offer sheets their original teams couldn’t match. This happened when a player was an Early Bird or Non-Bird free agent and the team didn’t have enough cap room to match a sufficiently large offer. For example, Gilbert Arenas was Golden State’s second round draft pick in 2001, and became an Early Bird free agent in 2003. Golden State could only match an offer sheet (or sign Arenas directly) for up to the amount of the Early Bird exception, which was about $4.9 million at the time.
The NBA wound up closing the loophole with what’s now known as the Gilbert Arenas Provision, but it came too late for the Warriors. The Wizards and Clippers, who were both well under the cap, offered significantly more than what Golden State could match. The Clippers offered Arenas a six-year, $60 million offer sheet to pair him up with Elton Brand in Los Angeles. Newly-hired Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld, who had only been hired three weeks prior, offered Arenas a six-year, $65 million offer sheet.
Arenas makes his choice
Years later, Gilbert Arenas talked to SLAM Magazine about his free agency decision:
Arenas’ choices came down to the Wizards and his hometown Clippers. A West Coast kid, Arenas lived up to his rep as unpredictable by choosing the Wizards—still recovering from the Michael Jordan era—over the up-and-coming Clips. Reports at the time said he made up his mind with a coin flip.
“That coin flip story was the funny part, me being entertaining. But really, I needed an identity,” Gilbert explains. “I saw a city that hadn’t won in a while. I can go across the country and change my image. I don’t have to worry about how many tickets I need for the game like I would if I went to the Clippers. I looked at the team, looked at the numbers and I thought, If we lose, no one will know. And if we win, we win together. Eventually, you have to win.”
Grunfeld and the Wizards seized a unique opportunity that we may never see again in the NBA. They were able to sign a 21-year-old star who had just started unlocking his potential and signed him to a six-year deal that would prove to be a bargain. Just months after losing the best player the sport had ever seen, they had recovered and signed the player who would be the foundation of the franchise for the rest of the decade.
The legacy of the Arenas signing
Arenas’ time in Washington was mired with ups and downs. I will always remember the game-winning shots, the blog posts before social media became big, the quirky locker room stories, the cool nicknames and the memorable performances. But much of his time has been overshadowed, of course, by Gungate, as well as the inability of their exciting core to reach their full potential, the contract extension he signed while recovering from a serious knee injury, and a litany of troubling comments and actions since he’s retired from basketball.
It hurt me to see how his time ended in Washington. I remembered the stories of him adopting a little boy as his little brother after his family lost their home in a fire, spending time with families throughout the region, and donating his time as well as his money to the DC community. For many national pundits and people around other parts of the country, he was a knucklehead, but it was just so hard for me ignore the positive things that he did on and off the court. I saw a different side. Maybe that was the fan in me, but it’s rare to see a person with the affluence that Arenas had to willingly go out and help strangers. That made everything that transpired with Gungate and afterward that much harder to process.
It was disappointing to see it end the way that it did, but that just showed me how much his signing really meant to me as a fan. No matter what happened in at the end of his time in DC, as a fan I cannot forget how memorable his time was here and how much fun it was for me to watch him play.
I also think about what it meant for this franchise too. Michael Jordan had just decided to stop playing after two exciting years of sold-out arenas that made Chinatown THE place to be in DC every night the Wizards played. The image of seeing Jordan speeding out of the MCI Center after his dismissal was a gut punch as a fan and brought many of the same feelings that I had the day I learned that the franchise traded Chris Webber to the Sacramento Kings.
I knew that this team needed an infusion of young talent to wipe away the stench of losing Jordan. Even if he wasn’t doing well as a front office executive, the idea of having, in my opinion, the greatest basketball player to ever play, a part of your favorite team is something that I wanted to see play out. I just didn’t feel like he was here long enough for us to truly see what could have been, but the Arenas signing helped me to move past Jordan leaving.
Don’t get me wrong, Arenas did not replace Jordan, but he provided the Wizards with one of the most unique players in the history of this franchise. He brought an interest to the team with his larger than life personality, but more importantly he made the Wizards a playoff contender.
Though the team missed chances to become more popular during his time here, he kept this city interested in the team, which was no small feat after losing Jordan. He got the Wizards back into the playoffs just two years after Jordan had left the team with little to build around. That early success meant so much to a team needed a shot in the arm.
Looking back at this signing now, without the Wizards signing Arenas, who is to say where this franchise would be? Who is to say how interested fans would have been in the franchise after the way they unceremoniously let go of Michael Jordan? Would the Wizards have traded for Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison without Arenas there to run the show? There is so much that we can ponder, but I truly believe that Grunfeld’s first signing was his most important, and may have saved this franchise.