Here’s how the NBA’s most dramatic story took its next turn: The Washington Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas(notes) pleaded guilty on Friday in a plea deal on his felony gun possession charge, with the U.S. Attorney’s office recommending to the District of Columbia Superior Court a sentence that doesn’t exceed six months and perhaps doesn’t include prison time at all.
The suggestion to D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Morin was that punishment be served with probation and community service, but Morin has the latitude to deliver a harsher penalty. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in jail, so the Wizards' star is still largely at the mercy of Morin.
Nevertheless, Arenas pleaded guilty to a single felony count for one of the four guns he brought into the team’s locker room, and now the possibility becomes real that the Wizards will take the abandonment of Arenas to a far greater length and try to terminate the approximate $80 million left on his original $111 million contract.
The Wizards have abandoned Arenas in ways public and private, and would like to void a contract that could free them of a star who has lost his basketball and box-office allure. Arenas knows they don’t want him, and he told that to Washington general manager Ernie Grunfeld when they were still speaking. From the beginning of this sad, sordid saga, the Wizards have made it clear they’re determined to move on without Arenas.
Without prison time, it's unlikely the Wizards would have a sustainable case to terminate the contract. With it, it's possible. Whatever the circumstances, the process of trying could have damning consequences should they lose and Arenas eventually returns from a league suspension. The relationship is already fractured beyond repair.
A vicious, nasty fight with Arenas could ultimately unseal and unleash whatever secrets lay within the walls of the Verizon Center. The Wizards will be taking on the wrath of Arenas, the players union and ultimately putting themselves on trial for a culture of enablement that existed for years with the clown prince of basketball.
This case has polarized the Wizards’ locker room – pitting the front office and players against each other – and an unprecedented fight to terminate Arenas’ contract could unravel the franchise. The Wizards better hope they win, because the possibility of trying to reintegrate Arenas into an organization that tried to take away his contract could have colossal complications.
"If they try to terminate his contract and fail, they're in big trouble,” said a source familiar with the Wizards-Arenas dynamic. “The Wizards don't want Arenas back in the locker room after they've tried to screw him."
The Wizards have scrubbed Arenas off the Verizon Center billboards and signage, and the NBA was right there with them, eliminating his likeness out of stories and online shopping catalogues. Arenas initially believed the organization was on his side after the Dec. 21 incident, but eventually realized that wasn’t the case. The Wizards moved rapidly to distance themselves once the details of his locker-room showdown with Javaris Crittenton(notes) became public.
It’s a shame, because the Wizards marketed and made money on the clown persona that ultimately got Arenas an indefinite suspension by NBA commissioner David Stern, and they don’t deserve the salary-cap relief that voiding his contract would give them. The Wizards’ organization isn’t a victim of Arenas’ recklessness, but a co-conspirator. He’s untradeable now, and they’ve played an immense part in that. Stern could suspend him for the rest of the season – almost assuredly no less than 20 games – but Arenas should be back in a Wizards uniform when the sentence is over.
Sources say Arenas’ attorney had tried hard to plead the case down to four separate misdemeanor charges – one for each gun in the locker room – but Arenas’ past misdemeanor gun possession, as well as the public nature of the case, made it impossible. It took Arenas too long to surround himself with competent counsel and advice, and he paid a price.
His own judgment is horrible, and Arenas should’ve relied on others. He turned his guns into team security, when he probably should’ve hustled them out of the building. He kept talking, when he should’ve stayed silent. He let the Wizards advise him on an attorney, when he should’ve found his own.
Arenas testified to authorities that Crittenton responded to his ill-fated practical joke of laying unloaded guns on Crittenton’s locker room chair with the brandishing of his own weapon. At least one other teammate witness in the locker room backed that story, sources with knowledge of the case said. Yet, sources also said two teammates – Mike Miller(notes) and Randy Foye(notes) – backed either very little, or none, of that account.
This case was never about Crittenton, and whatever happens to him will have little bearing on the public fallout. He’s been injured this season, and most believe that he’ll never play another game for Washington. The Wizards can make him and his contract go away, and almost assuredly will. Antawn Jamison(notes) and Caron Butler(notes) could be traded. Grunfeld will have to answer to a new owner soon.
On Friday, Arenas walked into court, copped a plea on a gun charge and now everything goes into motion: The judge, the commissioner, the Wizards. Prison time could complicate Arenas’ future, but without it, the most ironic thing of all could happen to these Wizards: Eventually, they’ll look around, and Gilbert Arenas could be the last man standing.