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Return to the court only part of rebuilding new, improved Arenas

As he sat at his locker last week Gilbert Arenas looked thicker, more muscled than two years ago. On the court he appeared stiffer, less confident.

"I don't want to say I'm back," he said. "I will be back next season."

Arenas has long been typecast as a shoot-first point guard, which applies whether we're talking about basketball or the wild, wild West. Though he clearly knows the game -- intelligence helped transform him from a second-round pick to an All-Star within four years -- he hasn't demanded respect as a player who thinks his way through. He has been niched instead as a star who reacts impulsively, who doesn't necessarily raise the level of his team, who now admits he didn't even rehab properly after his left knee was injured in April 2007, resulting in a painful run of three surgeries.

"I didn't know the seriousness of rebuilding my leg," Arenas said. "The false advertisement I got the first time I came back (in summer '07) was I'd already gained my speed. And once I'd gained my speed, I didn't think I'd need anything else. So I didn't work on my leg anymore. And that was the problem."

Arenas responded by rushing himself into summer league games and causing further damage. The ensuing surgeries -- including an arthroscopy in September that Arenas now doubts he ever needed -- may have provided an unintended benefit. Perhaps they have taught one of the league's most talented stars to slow himself down, to make the most of his talent while he still has power to exploit it.

"You can't take it for granted," Arenas said. "I got hurt at 25; now I'm 27 and I've missed the game for a long time. Sometimes when you're on top of your game, you don't appreciate it as much because you're on top. When you get knocked off the pedestal, you start looking up and you realize you're going to be gone at the end of the day.

"Five, six, seven years from now, I'm going to be gone from this league. And then what [has] dawned on me was when Shaq [O'Neal] said, 'I got one or two years left.' And that's like, wait a minute, he's going to be out of the league. And then you've got Tim [Duncan retiring eventually], you've got A.I. (Allen Iverson), and the league just keeps moving. So you just got to enjoy while you're here. Have fun, play it the right way.''

On Wednesday night Arenas will be headed back to Cleveland for a second recent reunion with the Cavaliers, who finished off the Wizards in the first round each of the last three postseasons. Last week, however, Washington upset the visiting Cavs 109-101 in the second game of Arenas' comeback.

In those two games he has shot 6 for 23 from the floor, which means nothing. When he has his legs back under him next season, his shooting will naturally pick up where he left off two years ago. The impressive aspect of Arenas' comeback -- the potential that could yet transform him from an All-Star to a title contender -- has been his total of 20 assists and 1 turnover in 63 minutes against the Pistons and Cavs.

Arenas has spent some of his abundant free time watching old video of himself. "When I was getting MVP chants, I was always trying to make the big play -- throwing the ball up the court, hitting the big shots," he said. "I call it 'controlled reckless.' It was controlled chaos, the way I was playing. I don't need to play that way now."

Is this the beginning of a new approach? "I don't know about next season," he said with a smile. "But I don't need to play that way now. Because I have the ball in my hands. With Eddie Jordan's offense, it was equal opportunity, so I didn't get to control the ball as much; so when I did have it I tried to make something happen. Now I can give it up a couple times, I can do a lot of probing. Tap (interim coach Ed Tapscott) is just letting me go out and play."

Here's how I interpret his meaning: Though Jordan reshaped his Princeton offense to account for Arenas' talents, enabling him to become a three-time All-NBA guard while averaging 27.7 points over '04-07, Arenas is saying that he chafed by trying to demonstrate his brilliance before circulating the ball among his teammates. When he speaks of uncertainty about next season, he's wondering about the style he'll be asked to play.

I've received no small amount of skeptical mail from readers who have questioned my insistence that the Wizards will bounce back as big winners next season. My sense is they'll hire an experienced coach -- someone like Flip Saunders, Avery Johnson, Sam Mitchell or Dwane Casey, whose approach may be best-suited to this particular team -- to partner himself with Arenas for better or worse, till dismissal or trade do they part. The new coach will either win big with Arenas or be fired for believing in him, because no NBA team goes anywhere unless the coach and his best player trust one another. The next coach in Washington will show faith in Arenas and live with his occasional impulses, while steering him to further explore his talent to create for others as well as for himself.

Chauncey Billups, Steve Nash and Mo Williams are All-Star point guards whose command and leadership have grown relatively late in their careers. There's no reason why Arenas can't continue to improve and lift his team up with him. He is surrounded by fellow All-Stars Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, along with rehabbing center Brendan Haywood and youngsters like Nick Young, Javale McGee and Dominic McGuire, who took advantage of opportunities to improve during this otherwise lost season. Then there is the potential No. 1 pick in the draft, which could turn into Blake Griffin or a draft-day trade for more ready-made talent.

A new coach who emphasizes defense, a well-blended roster and a rehabilitated 27-year-old Arenas should make for a compelling team next season. "Antawn's going to get his double-double, Caron's going to get his 20 to 25," Arenas said. "It's the younger guys I can [help], because I know they can get lost playing between them two."

He added, "Now it's about in the next five years trying to win a championship." The words carry slightly more weight now that he has spent two difficult years learning from his mistakes.

There is a wide range of personalities -- Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace and Isiah Thomas among them -- who didn't appear to be championship material until they had matured as leaders of champiomship teams. I understand those who doubt whether any team led by Arenas will ever amount to anything, but I have a different view. Maybe there is more to him than he has shown. Maybe.