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.
posted by David Friedman @ 12:41 AM