Wizards' Win Total Still Matches Arenas' Jersey NumberThe Washington Wizards squandered a 20 point lead and lost 87-85 to the New Jersey Nets, falling to 0-4 to start a season for the first time since 1992-93. Gilbert Arenas had a chance to go for the tie or the win on the last possession but he dribbled out the clock before launching a terrible, twisting shot from the right baseline that was partially deflected by Vince Carter and fell well short of the goal. Arenas candidly admitted after the game, "I should have stayed straight up going toward the basket instead of going right. Once I went right, there was no time left and Vince jumped pretty quick...It was just a bad shot on my part." Honesty is nice but good execution would be even better. This is a good illustration of why the purely statistical approach to player evaluation leads to results that are more quirky than Arenas himself. There are all these numbers about "clutch shooting" but the reality is that the percentages are against any player who is taking a last second shot to win the game, so how well a player shot in a small sample size of that nature does not tell us too much. Ideally, you'd like your best player to be someone who puts you in a position to be leading the game at the end so you don't need such heroics, but I guess there is not a statistic for scoring 15 points in a fourth quarter or making shots with two or three minutes left in a game, which is at least as "clutch" as making a shot with five seconds left. The other thing to consider is that if your team does end up in a situation where it needs a last second shot then you want your best player to have the judgment and skill to create a high percentage attempt for himself or a teammate. The Wizards were only down two points at the end and Arenas had more than enough time to attack the hoop and score, get fouled or pass to an open teammate. The likelihood that Kobe Bryant would, of his own volition, dribble into the corner and shoot the shot that Arenas did is very low. I realize that someone is going to find YouTube clips of Bryant shooting off balance shots, so please note the words "of his own volition": sometimes there is only one or two seconds left and a player does not have much choice but to fire away and hope for the best--but with plenty of time to work with there is no way that Arenas should have ended up with the shot he took, as he acknowledged.
Enough about last second shots. How did the Wizards blow a 20 point lead? Let's look at the play by play sheet, starting at the 7:07 mark of the second quarter when Washington led 37-17. Arenas had eight points and four assists at that juncture. Vince Carter made a couple free throws sandwiched around a missed jumper by Antawn Jamison. The next two Wizards' possessions read "Arenas 3pt Shot: Missed" and "Arenas Turnover:Bad Pass (2 TO) Steal:Kidd (1 ST)." By then New Jersey had cut the lead to 37-24. Caron Butler made a layup and Antonio Daniels missed a jumper. The Nets kept scoring and now only trailed 39-29. Arenas missed another three pointer and New Jersey scored again to make the score 39-31, so the lead had been slashed by 12 points in a little over four minutes. The quarter closed with Arenas getting his shot blocked by Carter, who then missed a dunk, after which Arenas made a jumper as time ran out to give Washington a 41-36 halftime edge. The game was nip and tuck the rest of the way.
The point is not just that Arenas missed a last second shot or even that he used poor judgment with how he conducted the last possession; the point is how he ran the game from the point guard position throughout the contest. Arenas finished with 21 points, six assists, four rebounds and six turnovers while shooting 7-17 from the field, 2-7 from three point range and 5-7 on free throws. Nets' point guard Jason Kidd finished with six points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and two turnovers while shooting 2-9 from the field, 1-6 from three point range and 1-2 on free throws. The box score does not tell us much about either player's defense--which is a serious drawback for statistical based analysis since half of the game is spent playing defense (adjusted plus/minus supposedly accounts for this but it cannot tell you which players are responsible for good defensive plays and which players are responsible for defensive breakdowns). Neither player shot well, but Kidd shot a lot less frequently and got the ball to his teammates in scoring positions more often than Arenas did while turning the ball over less frequently. Kidd also finished second on his team in rebounds. Arenas had a -2 plus/minus rating, while Kidd had a +5 plus/minus rating. I don't know how the two players' box score numbers compute in PER or anything else but I know that I'd rather have Jason Kidd as my point guard than Gilbert Arenas. There is no doubt that Arenas is a talented player but his outgoing personality--and a few spectacular performances--have convinced a lot of people that he is a much better player than he really is. This may sound harsh, but the best thing that happened to Arenas' reputation as a player last year is that he went down with a knee injury before the playoffs; that enabled Wizards' fans to believe the fantasy that if he had been healthy that the Wizards, not the Cavaliers, would have gone on an extended run in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Reality check time: Cleveland beat Washington 4-2 in the 2006 playoffs and after beating the depleted Wizards in the first round in 2007 the Cavaliers beat a solid Nets team that had upset Toronto and then the Cavaliers closed out the Pistons by winning four straight--and a team that beat the Pistons four straight times in the Eastern Conference Finals was not going to lose to the Wizards in the first round, Arenas or no Arenas. The problem for Arenas and the Wizards is that the myth of how well they might have done in last year's playoffs is going to be exposed by how poorly they actually do in this regular season.
Obviously, the Wizards are not going to go 0-82. They will start winning some games soon and Arenas will have some good performances along the way. I also realize that Arenas is not 100% healthy in the wake of his knee surgery; I expected as much and that is part of the reason that I ranked the Wizards lower than other analysts did--Arenas should probably have considered his physical condition before he shot off his mouth about how he and Washington were going to beat the Celtics in Boston's home opener. That kind of trash talk is why I'm not dwelling on Arenas' injury as a major factor in his performance; if he has enough confidence to tell the world what he is going to do, then I am going to assume that he is healthy enough to back it up.
The bottom line is that last year's Arenas for MVP talk was more than a little out of hand and that in the improved Eastern Conference it is going to be tough for the Wizards to make the playoffs this season. The rise of the Celtics means that at least one of last year's playoff teams is headed for next year's draft lottery and Washington is the most likely candidate.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:04 AM