May 27, 2012

The Collapse: 2008-2009 Through 2009-2010

At the conclusion of the 2007-2008 season, Antawn Jamison's contract expired, making him an unrestricted free agent. Then, Gilbert Arenas, despite having played only 17 games in the one plus seasons since his knee injury in April 2007, exercised an early termination clause in his contract and also became an unrestricted free agent. All of a sudden, two of the Big Three were no longer under contract. Gilbert indicated he wanted to return to the Wizards, but only if the team took care of Antawn Jamison first. There was no doubt the team would have re-signed Jamison. Owner Abe Pollin had a soft spot for Jamison and he was coming off an All Star season as the team's leading scorer. But Gilbert's demand seemed entitled and set an ominous tone.

The team re-signed Jamison to a four year deal at an average salary of $12.5 million per year then turned their attention to Agent Zero. Gilbert was really looking for the maximum deal he could get under the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, but to create a little goodwill, he said he would agree to take less so the team could sign other free agents for a championship push. In the end, though, he only ended up taking about $1 million per year less than the maximum deal, effectively handcuffing the team for years to come with a deal that would pay him over $20 million each year. Bad decision. Really bad decision. Gilbert played a total of two games in the 2008-2009 season due to the same knee injury that ended his season two years prior.

Training camp started and the team received another injury blow: Brendan Haywood tore a ligament in his right wrist which caused him to miss all but the final six games of the season. Without Brendan, the team was lost at their own basket. Brendan called the defense and kept everyone in the right spots on the floor. His absence was obvious and the team struggled to a 19-63 record, matching the franchise worst record for an 82 game season first achieved in 2000-2001. I have only attended every Wizards home game in one season, and that season was it. I hope I never have to go through something like that again.

Our 19-63 record yielded us the number five overall pick in the 2009 draft and just like they did with the fifth pick in 2004, the team traded it, this time to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, two veteran players who were in the last year of their contracts. Clearly the team was going for it, hoping that the trade along with the return of Arenas and Haywood combined with Jamison, Butler, Stevenson and young players Andray Blatche, Nick Young and JaVale McGee, would right the ship. Head coach Eddie Jordan had been relieved of his position during the previous season so the team went for a marquee coach, bringing in Flip Saunders, who had previously been the head coach in Minnesota and Detroit and had a string of playoff appearances with those two teams. It didn't work. If I thought a second 19 win season in nine years was bad, I had no concept of how awful things could get until the 2009-2010 season.

While the team won two of its first three games that year, including an impressive road victory over the Dallas Mavericks on opening night, they lost eight of the next nine to start the season 3-10. Then, owner Abe Pollin, who had been in deteriorating health due to a rare brain disease over the previous few years, died. Pollin had owned the team in part or in whole since 1963, the team's third year of existence and first as the Baltimore Bullets. The loss of Pollin meant a lot to players like Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, whom Pollin had championed in the media as players with the kind of character  that he wanted to play for the Wizards.

Then it got worse. On the team flight back from Phoenix on December 19, JaVale McGee and Javaris Crittenton were playing a card game called Boo-Ray, a game similar to spades, when an argument broke out over money. Apparently, JaVale had borrowed money from teammate Earl Boykins and was not paying back Boykins as he won money from Crittenton. As Boykins continued to ask JaVale for money during the game, Crittenton demanded McGee hand over the money he had won to Boykins. Somehow, Arenas got involved with Crittenton and the two went at each other all the way to the airport terminal with Arenas ultimately threatening to set Crittenton's car on fire and Crittenton threatening to shoot Arenas in the knee in retaliation.

Two days later, Arenas brought four guns to Verizon Center, laid them in front of Crittenton's locker and wrote a note saying "Pick 1, so the day you want to shoot me let me know, I'll be ready to get shot." Gun possession is illegal in the District of Columbia so what Gilbert did was a felony offense, although I'm sure he didn't think about that at the time. When Crittenton arrived, he claimed he didn't need Arenas' guns and pulled out his own and pointed it at Gilbert. The incident died down from there but word got out through word of mouth and ultimately made it's way into the press. On January 10, NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Arenas and Crittenton for the season. Arenas was convicted of a felony and had to spend time in a halfway house. Crittenton would never play NBA basketball again and is currently free on bond after being charged with murder in the death of a 22 year old mother of four in his hometown of Atlanta.

The end of the Big Three era in DC was in sight. The team made it official just before the trading deadline. First, they sent Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson to the Dallas Mavericks for Josh Howard, James Singleton, Drew Gooden and Quinton Ross, the third major trade with the Mavericks in the last nine years. A few days later, they traded Antawn Jamison to Cleveland essentially for the Cavaliers 2010 first round draft pick. At the time it was thought the Cavaliers needed a scoring big man to take them back to the NBA Finals. I had the opportunity to talk to Jamison a few days before the trade, when it was already obvious the team was shopping him. I told him I hoped the team put him in a position where he could win a championship as long as it wasn't in Cleveland. He laughed but I think he was glad to leave Washington that year. As it turns out, he didn't win a title in Cleveland but Butler, Haywood and Stevenson did a year later in Dallas. The Wizards finished the 2009-2010 season with a 26-56 record, good for last place in our division, a full 18 games behind the fourth place Charlotte Bobcats. 45 wins total in two years. Not good.

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