Even before the erratic and possibly felonious behavior of Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards were making headlines (albeit smaller ones) for all the wrong reasons. With a $79 million payroll, an All-Star-laden lineup and a 10-deep bench bolstered by the off-season acquisitions of swingman Mike Miller and guard Randy Foye, Washington was expected to once again contend in the East after last year's 19--63 debacle. But injuries (Miller), subpar performances (Arenas, Caron Butler) and the team's inability to grasp Flip Saunders's complex offense had the Wizards off to a 12--23 start at week's end. "No question, this is not a typical team," says Saunders, who took over as coach last April. "My other teams have really trusted our system. At this point we have played more individually."
The biggest problem has been Arenas (POINT AFTER, page 80). Saunders's flex offense calls for patience and precise execution, and that's not Arenas's game. Too often he has broken off plays early: 73% of the point guard's shots have come within the first 15 seconds of the shot clock. As a result Washington ranked 22nd in points per 100 possessions through Sunday. "He plays selfishly," says a Western Conference scout of Arenas, whose plus-minus per game is -3.6. "I feel bad for Flip. I look over at him sometimes, and he looks so frustrated."
If Arenas is charged with a crime—a D.C. grand jury heard testimony last week and could indict Arenas for carrying a handgun without a license, which is a felony—the Wizards are likely to explore voiding the remaining four years and $80 million of his six-year, $111 million deal. But whether or not Arenas returns, Washington is unsure that this group can be molded into a winner. Multiple league sources say G.M. Ernie Grunfeld has been shopping All-Star forwards Antawn Jamison (who has two years and $28.4 million remaining on his contract) and Butler (one year, $10.6 million). Two executives from rival teams say that while Grunfeld is seeking equal talent for Jamison (who has been linked to the Cavaliers) and Butler, they believe that as the Feb. 18 trade deadline approaches, Washington will settle for less value but shorter contracts, then try to rebuild through free agency next summer.
Talk of a shake-up doesn't surprise Jamison. "It's understandable," he says. "We haven't played well, and we have to be held accountable." But he believes that, given the opportunity, the team can still live up to its potential. Without Arenas, the Wizards have split their first four games, including a win over the Magic. "There are some good players in this locker room," Jamison says. "We can win with this group. And when you start winning, the trade talk goes away."
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A scout's view of the Knicks, who have gone 12--7 after a 3--14 start:
The turning point was when Mike D'Antoni realized that he can't run with this group like he did with Phoenix. Their possessions are down, but they are getting much better shots, and they are playing with more of a rhythm. The eight-man rotation Mike has gone with has worked. The fact that his guys are playing bigger minutes could hurt them later in the season, but the group he puts out there is playing really well together. David Lee's jump shot keeps improving (below); he should be an All-Star this year. And Danilo Gallinari is a stud. He reminds me of a young Dirk Nowitzki. His confidence is through the roof, and he's a much better defender than people think.
Photograph by LOU CAPOZZOLA
TRADE TIME? Jamison (22.0 points per game) is one of Washington's movable assets.
NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (LEE)