Is Gilbert Arenas the Most Overrated All-Star in the NBA?Gilbert Arenas is an All-Star, he has a popular blog and he is a fun-loving player who is a fan favorite. He is also the most overrated All-Star in the NBA. Note carefully how that sentence was phrased; I'm not saying that he is a bad player or even that he does not have All-Star level talent--but last season this guy was pumped up by the adoring media (including NBA.com, USA Today and the Washington Post, among others) as a top MVP candidate. The Wizards had the best record in the East for about a minute and a half while Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Toronto worked through various issues but most people seem to forget that the Wizards had already fallen to 39-34 before Arenas and Caron Butler suffered season-ending injuries. As strange as it may sound, the best thing that happened to maintain Arenas' reputation is that he got hurt and did not play in last year's playoffs, because for some reason a lot of people assume that the Wizards would have beaten the Cavaliers if Arenas had played--even though the Cavs eliminated the Wizards in the first round the previous year and even though the Cavs had clearly improved since then, as they demonstrated by beating Detroit four straight times in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Arenas got hurt again this season but Butler did not--and what has happened since Arenas was sidelined would be damaging to Arenas' reputation as an MVP-level player if members of the media simply reported what their own eyes should clearly be able to see. The Wizards started out 3-5 this year before Arenas injured his knee and they have gone 9-5 since he has been out, including a 104-91 victory over Miami on Thursday night. Butler, who had 19 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals in that game, is averaging 22.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 2.6 apg while posting career-highs in field goal percentage (.512), three point field goal percentage (.451) and free throw percentage (.874). Antawn Jamison, who had 16 points and 16 rebounds against Miami, is averaging 21.1 ppg and 10.7 rpg, better than he has done in either category since becoming a Wizard. Great players are supposed to not only produce numbers for themselves but also make it easier for their teammates to get open shots--and that applies even more so to a supposedly elite point guard like Arenas who has the ball in his hands all the time. If Cleveland's recent struggles in LeBron James' absence prove his value--and they do to a certain extent, even though other Larry Hughes and Anderson Varejao were also out of the lineup at the same time--then doesn't the Wizards' success without Arenas at least suggest that maybe he is not quite as valuable as so many people think?
Here are two mitigating factors that Arenas-lovers might bring up: (1) Arenas was not completely healthy early in the season, so the 3-5 record does not reflect how the team would have done with him at full strength; (2) the Wizards may not be able to sustain their current level of play. I don't buy the first point because, as I noted, the Wizards were 39-34 last season before Arenas and Butler suffered their season-ending injuries and they were 42-40 the year before that with all three guys being healthy. The fact is that the Wizards have been mediocre for quite some time despite flanking Arenas with two legitimate All-Star level players. As for whether or not the Wizards can sustain their current pace, obviously no one can answer that for sure--but, watching them play, it does not look like a fluke that they are playing well.
During the Washington-Miami game, TNT's Reggie Miller said this about Arenas' replacement, Antonio Daniels: "I think he balances them out...When you had the three-headed monster you never knew where the shots were going to come from. Daniels gives them that balance. He understands that he is going to get the other guys involved and take his opportunities when they come to him." Later, play by play man Kevin Harlan observed that the Wizards seem to be more patient on offense without Arenas. "Very true," answered Miller.
It is obvious that the Wizards are not just treading water without Arenas but that they are playing much better without him--but that does not fit into the conventional wisdom narrative, so alternative explanations have to be sought: "When Gilbert Arenas is there, they are definitely a better team," Charles Barkley said during TNT's postgame show. Then he made a correct observation that completely contradicted his first statement: "They have much better movement of the ball (without Arenas). You saw Caron Butler say that. They have some good players on that team." Let's get this straight: the team has better ball movement without Arenas and is winning much more without him--but the Wizards are "definitely" better with him? That makes no sense.
Kenny Smith offered this defense of Arenas' value: "I don't think that we should be misguided to think that they're a better team without him. He is a guy who is a finisher, so in big games against great teams he is the one guy who can get his shot and make a play when no one else can. If you play a San Antonio, you might steal a game because he is a guy who in the fourth quarter can make two or three baskets. He brings that electricity, he brings that finishing element, to a team that is pretty good." It is true that Arenas has hit some big shots during his career but the overall numbers show that he shoots a lousy percentage and his team--which we now know has a lot of talented players--has had a mediocre record with him for quite some time. How do we know that Butler could not be a "finisher" in "big games"? Anyway, the Wizards are always around .500 with Arenas, so how many "big games" do they figure to play in during his career?
Barkley countered Smith by saying, "What he has to learn is--I always told myself that I was going to get every shot in the fourth quarter because I'm going to be a finisher--that's why he has to get Caron, Antawn, (DeShawn) Stevenson involved in the first couple quarters. Those guys can play...Great players, their job is to get other guys shots...I agree that they are not better without him but he's got to be a finisher but when your point guard takes a lot of shots the other guys are like--"and Barkley slumped his shoulders to pantomime their frustration. Smith responded that Arenas is really a shooting guard and Barkley agreed but noted correctly that Washington has been using him as a point guard.
The most accurate statement that has been made about the Wizards is a quote from Butler that appeared in Thursday's USA Today: "You look across the board, everybody playing has gotten better since Gilbert went down." I'm sure that Butler did not mean to take a shot at Arenas but rather to praise how much his teammates have stepped up but think about the literal meaning of what he said: everybody is playing better without Arenas--how could that possibly happen if Arenas is in fact the MVP not just of his team but the entire league? Would everybody on the Suns play better if Steve Nash were out for a month? What about the Spurs and Tim Duncan?
posted by David Friedman @ 6:27 AM