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Friday, September 19, 2008

What Impact Will Gilbert Arenas' Latest Surgery Have on the Wizards?

Gilbert Arenas will miss the start of the 2008-09 season after having his left knee operated on to clean out what Arenas called "floating debris." This is the third time he has had left knee surgery since April 2007. In typical Arenas fashion, Arenas disclosed the story on his own before the team could issue a press release and he said that he will not return until at least December, while the team prudently declined to set a specific timetable. It is terrible to see anyone hurt and not able to fully perform up to his capabilities and I'm sure that everyone who follows the NBA wishes Arenas a full and speedy recovery.

From a basketball analysis standpoint, how much will the Wizards really miss Arenas? Let's start by looking at Arenas at his best and work from there. Arenas' 60 point game versus the Lakers on December 19, 2006 was historically significant; only 20 NBA players have surpassed the 60 point mark a total of 59 times, with Wilt Chamberlain claiming the lion's share of that total (32), followed by Michael Jordan (four), Kobe Bryant (four) and Elgin Baylor (three), the only "non-Wilt" players to have multiple 60 point games in the regular season. However, the second part of the story of Arenas' performance does not get told often enough. After the game, Bryant said, "You tip your hat and say, 'See you next time.' First of all, he shot 27 free throws. We as a team shot 30. Think about that. But him individually, it's funny. He doesn't seem to have much of a conscience. I really don't think he does. Some of the shots he took tonight, you miss those, and they're just terrible shots. Awful. You make them and they're unbelievable shots. I don't get a chance to play him much, so I haven't gotten used to that mentality of just chucking it up there. He made some big ones, but I'll be ready next time." In the rematch on February 3, 2007, Bryant outplayed Arenas as the Lakers won, 118-102; as I wrote at that time, "Some 20 Second Timeout readers asserted that since Arenas shoots a good three point percentage that his low overall field goal percentage and high number of three point attempts should be excused but I responded that if Arenas shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 in the next that the Wizards will go 1-1 at best in those games despite the fact that his three point percentage would be .389. Having your point guard jacking up 8 or 9 three pointers a game--particularly on a team that is not good defensively anyway and has poor court balance--is not a formula for postseason success. Look again at the numbers: some of the categories are close, but Bryant outdid Arenas in every single area and his team won by 16 points in regulation. So, in the two Lakers-Wizards games this season, the Wizards won once in overtime when Arenas hit a much higher percentage of his shots than normal (and shot a very high number of free throws) and then got routed at home when Arenas shot 3-15 from three point range."

Arenas is an erratic gunner who has a me-first agenda that gets in the way of team success, which is why the Wizards do not suffer noticeably in his absence even though he is easily the most publicized player on the team. As I pointed out near the end of last season, during the past two seasons, the Wizards have done better with Caron Butler in the lineup sans Arenas than with Arenas in the lineup sans Butler. Last season, the Wizards started out 3-5 with Arenas before Arenas was sidelined by a knee injury. They went 35-31 without Arenas before he returned to play five late season games; the Wizards went 3-2 in those games and 2-1 in three late season games that he sat out. Overall, the Wizards were 37-32 without Arenas last year and 6-7 with him. Obviously, Arenas was not at full strength last season and 13 games is a small sample size--but 69 games is not a small sample size and the Wizards' winning percentage without Arenas in 2007-08 (.536) is virtually identical to the 39-34 mark (.534) that the Wizards posted in 2006-07 before Arenas and Butler were felled by season-ending injuries. In 2007-08, the Wizards essentially replaced Arenas with career journeyman Antonio Daniels--a solid pro who has played with five teams in his 11 year NBA career--and not only did not miss a beat, they actually performed better. It is important to remember that Butler missed 24 games last season; the Wizards went 33-25 (.569) with Butler and 10-14 (.417) without him--and five of the losses with Butler also came with Arenas in the starting lineup. Washington's best starting lineup last season (by winning percentage, with a minimum of 10 games) was Butler, Daniels, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson. That group went 23-16 (.590) for nearly half a season without Arenas, which projects to a 48-34 record, a mark that would exceed the Wizards' best season since acquiring Arenas.

You may recall that during the 2006-07 season Arenas was touted in some quarters as an MVP candidate. Time--and the winning percentages listed above--clearly demonstrate what any objective person looking at Arenas' skill set and attitude has understood all along: Arenas is an All-Star level player, not an MVP level player or a franchise player worthy of the sixth largest contract since the signing of the 1999 Collective Bargaining Agreement (the five larger deals were signed by Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Jermaine O'Neal, Chris Webber and Rashard Lewis).

I am not saying this now merely because Arenas is hurt yet again; when the Wizards initially signed Arenas to a six year, $111 million deal this summer I said that Washington had "vastly overpaid"--and that evaluation was based purely on the skill set and attitude of a healthy Arenas, not even factoring in his recent injury history. Obviously, the questionable health of his left knee should have made the Wizards even more cautious about guaranteeing so much money to Arenas.

The bottom line is that barring an injury to Butler or a slew of injuries that wipe out the team's depth, the Wizards have a good shot of being above .500 whenever Arenas returns.

After the 2008 playoffs, I did a post titled The 2008 Playoffs: Where the Revival of the NBA's Two Flagship Franchises Happened, offering some thoughts about each of the 16 playoff participants. I stand by what I said about Arenas and the Wizards at that time:

The Washington Wizards will never make it further than the second round of the playoffs as long as Gilbert Arenas is their primary offensive option. Period. I don't care how certain people crunch various numbers to "prove" his value and I don't care that the Wizards were once in first place in the East for a minute and a half almost two years ago when Arenas had some high scoring games. Arenas is a player who is primarily focused on scoring points and on settling old scores (being a second round pick, being left off of Team USA, etc.). It seems highly unlikely that he will ever change his mindset and that makes him ill equipped to lead a legit contender.

All I can add to that now is that I sincerely hope that Arenas one day is healthy enough to prove me right--or wrong.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:41 AM

9 comments

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9 Comments:

At Friday, September 19, 2008 8:02:00 AM, Anonymous Ilhan said...

David:

Then what is the Wizards' front office thinking, giving him such contracts or even keeping him on the team? His talent, the promise of that talent, must be so overwhelming in person that otherwise astute basketball people cannot come to their senses with respect to him.

Personally I cringe almost every time Arenas opens his mouth, though that seems to happen with many an athlete for me. Two instances stick with me especially because the media seemed, through its silence, to approve of what was being said.

The first one was Lebron, who not only wants to be the first billionaire athlete but also, at a pinnacle of insensitive egoism, had to express that wish. If he has the means and if the world is set up like that, then he can very well shoot for it. Gates has 57 of them, right? But to have money, especially in such an amount, itself as a main goal in life and to be able to outright say it without being criticized? I'd like to resist the temptation to shout "talk about your jumpshot!" because I sincerely believe that professional athletes are not monkeys who are only good for one thing and have all the right to say what is on their mind, be it politics or whatever. But that parvenu mentality, especially coming from an African-American (not to say anything about the state of the African continent itself) post-Katrina, makes me lose all the hope that the world can change for the better.

The second was this summer, when, in the midst of textbook american jingoism, members of Team USA went from saying a very reasonable "we will reclaim our spot as the top basketball country" to a downright, at least for the rest of the world, chilling "America is the best country in the world". I know it was important for Americans that their national team finally started to play in a way fitting a national team. I know that national pride took over commonsense. But that last comment was somewhere between non-sense (Does it imply that the USA offers the best health care or highschool education to her citizens universally?) and offensive (Does it imply that Sweden or Germany suck?). If you can open any newspaper and read that more than 1 Million people [sic] have died over in Iraq, then, as a human being, you should have the decency to tone down jingoism. "I love living in the US and wouldn't have it any other way" is one thing, any remark about the US being the best is altogether another. Throughout the Olympics I waited for you to comment on this but, as far I could see, you didn't. So I guess I am venting a little frustration towards you, too. I know it's a sports blog but it is vital for Americans, at least conscientious Americans, to be aware and critical of jingoism and, especially, american exceptionalism, the latter of which renders it possible for Fox and affiliates to ignore or worse dehumanize the aforementioned 1 plus Million dead in the name and memory of those who lost their lives on 9/11.

 
At Friday, September 19, 2008 2:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ilhan:

I can't say for sure what the Wizards were thinking but I believe that it was a mixture of belief in Arenas' talent plus a belief that there would be a huge fan backlash if Arenas were not re-signed. When I made earlier posts pointing out that the Wizards do as well or better with Arenas out of the lineup, several Wizards' fans vehemently denied this; it was almost like they were rooting against their own team doing well without Arenas just to either "prove" me wrong or "prove" Arenas' value. I think that Wizards' management was concerned that if they did not overpay Arenas that those kinds of "fans" would stop buying tickets.

As for the remainder of your comment, you really shifted gears, both away from the subject of this post and away from territory that I cover at this site. This is a basketball analysis/history/commentary site, focused primarily on discussing what happens on the court and also how well (or poorly) the media explains the game. The other issues that you brought up are certainly important but they are well beyond the scope of what I am covering here.

 
At Friday, September 19, 2008 2:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alright, one more comment, clearly I enjoy it.

Arenas is not that erratic a gunner. His ts% is exactly the same as the same of he who shall not be named or discussed by me too much anymore because it is getting tedios.

He is definitely high variance, but the fact is, he can win 1 out of 2 games for you. A lot of guards in the NBA can't do that.

Basically though, I completely agree with this very good post. Stupid contract. Arenas is good not great and doesn't add a whole lot more than Antonio Daniels, as both the historical stats and the experience of last year would indicate.

Great fantasy player though....

Owen

 
At Friday, September 19, 2008 11:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

kobe was right from the standpoint gilbert is overatedd and gunner his team was better without him than with him kobe should of praised 60 point game more becasue it was hell of a game but it was only one game that was my problem with kobe he should of praised the game. gilbert should of never got 100 million he will never be the player he once was he is a shell of himself now.

 
At Saturday, September 20, 2008 9:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

one could argue that the 100mil was a financial move, and not a basketball one.

Arenas sells tickets, jerseys, and whatever. I don't think that he'll scoff at an 80 million offer, so yes even from a business standpoint he is vastly overpaid.

The trend always has been that you need an MVP level player with an all-nba sidekick and a good supporting cast to win it all. Notable exceptions like the Pistons (who got Rasheed Wallace for free), the Celtics (who got KG for free) are just that, exceptions. The Wizards probably know they won't be competing for the championship soon, so might as well sell a lot of tickets. You can see this happening in Denver, and in a lot of other franchises.

So long as fans crave for dunks, three pointers, fancy dribbling, and funny quotes, questionable basketball decisions will always be made.

Z

 
At Sunday, September 21, 2008 9:17:00 AM, Blogger JP said...

Great piece.

I would agree that the Wizards are locked into more of the same, but there has to be a little bit of optimism because of Blatche. He is a very unique talent, a legit 6'11" big man with guard skills. On the other side, how much better can the Wizards get with that type of ball distribution?


Z:

I think Gilbert would have scoffed at 80 million. It sounds like the Wizards wanted to pamper his ego, initially offering him 127 million or so, and then giving him the option to take less. That's what I read.

 
At Monday, September 22, 2008 4:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

Why should Kobe have praised the 60 point game more? Kobe understood that it was a product of a talented player playing in an undisciplined way that will not lead to much ultimate team success. Kobe "tipped his hat" and said that he would be ready the next time--and he was.

 
At Monday, September 22, 2008 9:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

kobe has played undisciplined as well he should of said he played a great game he got us tonight and leave it at that. if somebody took away from kobe performance kobe fans would be the first to defend kobe it wasnt about gilbert career and could he lead a team to ring it was about what happened that night he outplayed kobe tat night e sould have been more praiseworhty.

 
At Tuesday, September 23, 2008 7:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

In Lazenby's article, Tex Winter said that he has looked at a lot of tapes and that Kobe's shot selection is actually quite good.

In contrast, it is obvious that Arenas' shot selection is poor. He is just a very talented player who got super hot one night (and was awarded a ton of free throws). Kobe spoke the truth and he backed up every word the next time that they played. Nobody can legitimately take away from Kobe's 81 point game or his other high scoring games because he was not taking the kinds of shots that Arenas took in his one 60 point game.

 

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