Picking Splinters: Arenas’ Needed Ego Check

There are government-owned mountains in the Nevada dessert that are less radioactive than the Washington Wizards’ locker room right now.

As reported by the Washington Post’s Michael Lee on Monday, center Brendan Haywood said that “ego” was to blame for the Wizards’ woes. Gilbert Arenas, whose ego has been known to, at times, swell roughly the size of Guam, followed up Haywood’s comments by blaming “hidden agendas” for the team’s troubles. Moreover, Arenas’s solution, should the Wiz not right themselves soon, is to start chucking shots and trying to take the game over by himself.

Haywood may find himself in a precarious situation, since he has a track record of locker room issues, as former sparring partner Etan Thomas will certainly tell you. In contrast, fans have always fallen head over heels for Arenas, whose forays into social media like Twitter and blogging, combined with his knack for big shots, have endeared him to the District. But in this apparent dispute, Haywood’s remarks seem the most on the money. And it’s pretty clear they’re directed at Arenas, or rather, Agent Zero, Hibachi, or any of the other nicknames Gilbert has coined for himself.

Volatile chemistry will absolutely short-circuit this season for Washington. Why? Because despite what GM Ernie Grunfeld may think, this team does not have the raw talent to hang with teams like the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers. More to the point, Arenas does not have the same raw talent as the league’s elite players. At least not any more.

Arenas has yet to show he’s the same elite player that dominated games before his 93 different knee surgeries. And let’s face it, after missing most of the past two seasons because of knee operations and setbacks, it would be ludicrous to think he could be the same player. If the Wizards are going to make this work, they need to click as a team. In order to do that, Arenas has to stop thinking he’s the same star as several years ago. And he has to do that because this year success is their only option.

When they swapped the No. 5 draft pick for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, the Wizards made a clear declaration that they were playing to win immediately. If they don’t win now, investing all that money in Arenas by way of his maximum contract is going to look awfully foolish, which will reflect rather poorly on both player and team.

When constructing a roster under the NBA salary cap, there is really just one cardinal sin: Don’t give the wrong player a max-contract. Bet on the wrong horse and there is never enough financial flexibility to recover by adding more premium talent. Right now, it looks like that’s precisely what the Wizards have done with Arenas.

Washington is playing for a present that looks like something from Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road.” The Wiz have an aging roster, a dearth of young talent, no draft pick from last season and a plethora of performance problems. Right now, there’s little to look forward to.

Had the Wizards gone in a different direction with “Agent Seven Zeros” and passed on him, this team could have netted the young point guard it needs in the past draft (Brandon Jennings? Jonny Flynn?), consoled itself with a rebuilding year this season with a likely lottery pick and added another star to complement Caron Butler through free agency. That wouldn’t be such a bad future to peer into.

Instead fans are left to watch this franchise gasp through a series of death throes that could last 82 games. That contrast in scenarios could bring Arenas’s popularity crashing to the ground along with the team’s downward spiral.

Arenas is a player whose quirky nature, showmanship and awareness as a sheer entertainer make him easy to love. But between his contract and his comments on Monday, his performances on the court had best start equaling his performances off of it. Or else that love he often feels from fans could fade awfully fast.