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Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Walking Wounded Edition

On Wednesday, injured stars Gilbert Arenas, Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki returned to action. The Wizards went 3-5 with Arenas at the start of the season and he had been out of action since then because of a balky knee. When the Wizards went 9-5 in their first 14 games this season sans Arenas, I asked, "Is Gilbert Arenas the Most Overrated All-Star in the NBA?" The premise behind that question is that Arenas was touted in some quarters as an MVP candidate midway through the 2006-07 season yet his team, to put it charitably, did not seem worse without him in those 14 games; in fact, their record improved the second that he exited the lineup, but I gave Arenas some benefit of the doubt regarding the eight games he played because he clearly was not 100% healthy. Still, a 9-5 record represented a better winning percentage than the Wizards enjoyed in previous seasons even with a completely healthy Arenas, so it is certainly reasonable to question his value. Arenas' fans did not much appreciate that post, responding by praising his value, praising the improvement of his teammates this season (something that was not apparent until Arenas stopped playing) and suggesting that a larger sample size of games would reveal Arenas' true value. In one of my responses to my critics I pledged to reevaluate Arenas and the Wizards after a larger sample of games had been played this season. I have not written extensively about this subject since that time, but now that the season is almost over--and Arenas has just returned--it is worth examining the cold hard facts. This is what the numbers tell us about the Wizards over the past two seasons:

Record with Butler and without Arenas: 27-18 (.600)
Record with Arenas and with Butler: 40-32 (.556)
Overall Record: 79-78 (.503)
Record without Butler and without Arenas: 10-20 (.333)
Record with Arenas and without Butler: 2-8 (.200)

(all of these statistics are based on information found at Basketball-Reference.com)

Obviously, a complete analysis would require a game by game breakdown of the home/road schedule, strength of opposition, key players who were missing from the opposing team and so forth. Still, the overall pattern reinforces my initial premise: Arenas is overrated, at least in terms of his impact on winning. The Wizards have been at their best, by far, with Butler and without Arenas and they have been at their worst with Arenas and without Butler. The impression that I started to form last season and that has only been strengthened by subsequent events is that Butler, not Arenas, is the most valuable player on the team. It is also worth mentioning that the Wizards were 39-34 last season before both All-Stars were felled by season-ending injuries and they are 38-37 so far this season despite being without Arenas for virtually the entire campaign. Essentially, the Wizards are a .500 team with or without Arenas, so why should he be considered an MVP or max contract level player? Arenas puts up gaudy individual numbers but they have little apparent impact on the team's won/loss record.

The Score: Milwaukee 110, Washington 109

The Key Stat: Gilbert Arenas scored 17 points on 5-9 shooting while playing just under 20 minutes. He also had four turnovers and just two assists and he posted the worst plus/minus number (-8) of any player in the game.

The Bottom Line: On the last play of the game, Arenas inexplicably double-teamed a well covered Andrew Bogut, leaving his man--Ramon Sessions--wide open to nail the game winning jumper. When you score nearly a point a minute and have a negative plus/minus number that tends to suggest some defensive liabilities. During ESPN's Boston-Indiana telecast, Mark Jones mentioned that Arenas has vowed to be a pass-first player now. Hubie Brown replied, "It will be great if he disciplines himself to do that...He's got to fit in to their style of play right now." As he gets his strength and his stamina back Arenas will no doubt once again be able to score 25-plus points in 40 minutes but as long as he turns the ball over, thinks shot first instead of pass first and does not play good defense he will not have a major, positive effect on the team's won-loss record.

The Score: Dallas 111, Golden State 86

The Key Stat: Dallas outscored Golden State 44-16 in fast break points. Dirk Nowitzki had 18 points, five rebounds and no turnovers in 27 minutes of action in his first game back after sustaining ankle and knee injuries.

The Bottom Line: Another old theme that I have mentioned more than once here is that teams should not be afraid to run against the Warriors, something that Dallas demonstrated in an early season win against their playoff bete noire. Or, as Jon Barry put it during ESPN's telecast of Dallas' rout of Golden State yesterday, "Teams that run are always susceptible to be run on." The Warriors shot .384 from the field and .250 from three point range and the Mavericks wisely rebounded those misses and pushed the ball quickly up the court, not waiting to engage in trench warfare in the half court. Yes, it helps to have Jason Kidd (five points, 11 rebounds, 17 assists) handling the ball and making the decisions but the Mavs won two fast paced games against the Warriors earlier this season without Jason Kidd (the Warriors' only win versus the Mavs came last Sunday when Nowitzki was unable to play due to injury). Perhaps not every team has the right personnel or sufficient depth to run against the Warriors but it is the correct strategy for the Mavs and any other team that is able to do so. Teams that slow down their offensive attack against the Warriors often struggle because the Warriors will run on makes or misses; they play fast no matter what, so it makes sense for their opponents to get as many easy scores as possible.

The Score: L.A. Lakers 104, Portland 91

The Key Stat: Kobe Bryant led both teams in scoring (36 points) and rebounds (13) and he tied with Gasol for the team lead in assists (seven). Bryant shot 10-16 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line and he had three steals and just one turnover. He scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to preserve the victory. Those stats are great but the number that stands out is his plus/minus rating: +25, 17 better than any other player in the game.

The Bottom Line: Gasol had 10 points, six rebounds and seven assists in his return to action. He not only provided a much needed boost but by starting and playing 32 minutes he relegated Ronny Turiaf to the bench role that much better suits him. Nevertheless, the driving force on this team is Bryant. He is the reason that the Lakers are contending for the top seed in the West despite all of the games that Gasol and Andrew Bynum have missed. Jonathan Abrams of the L.A. Times just wrote an interesting article in which he noted, "Among his peers, Bryant is overwhelmingly the most intimidating. In a recent Sports Illustrated poll of current NBA players asking who scares you the most, Bryant earned 35% of the vote, while the next four--Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Dwight Howard--combined for only 24%."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:29 AM

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