Photo by Fernando Medina
The hardest thing about watching Gilbert Arenas play basketball right now is not that he is performing at about 25 percent of his statistical capacity. It isn’t even that he’s getting paid close to 18 million a year to average eight points and four assists per game. It’s that he looks entirely disenchanted doing it.
Just the thought that a guy who averaged close to 30 points a game and led his team to the playoffs five years ago could possibly be performing at such an abysmal clip is enough to make anyone see Arenas as disappointing. Even for the most optimistic of Magic fans, Arenas represents something of an enigma.
It’s a considerable drop in production, even from his stats with Washington in what was already shaping up to be a sub-standard season with the Wizards. I spent some time watching Gilbert footage provided by Synergy Sports Technology and noted a few things off the bat. For one, he doesn’t play a whole lot of defense. Not on the ball, not off from the ball, and certainly not in transition. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame it on the injury. It’s obvious that he has not recovered yet, and is playing somewhere close to 50 percent of his physical capacity.
But something bigger is at work here. Arenas is seemingly out of it. He plays like the game is no longer fun. There are times that he looks like a dad in his late 30s being dragged by his family through Disney World. There is a glaze in his eye that just reeks of “why can’t I just get a 12 pack and watch some TV?”
The truth is, it might not be a whole lot of fun for Arenas to play in the Dwight Howard system. For a guy who made a career out of isolation and spot-up shooting, he now is forced to run his game through the pick-and-roll. For a playground star who might be in the twilight of his “explosive years,” that might cripple the spirits even as his body struggles to respond to his many injuries.
Still, though, he’s logging plenty of minutes, which is perplexing. When he moved to Orlando, Gilbert brought a 17 points per game average and was shooting 32 percent from the outside. In a Magic jersey he has only performed even close to those number on four different occasions. In those instances, Gilbert got his offense going in very methodical, team-structured ways. His first two buckets in each game were pick-and-roll plays with Dwight Howard at the top of the key. There was no isolation, no spotting up, and each of the looks were high percentage shots inside the three-point line.
It’s almost in line with the classic theory that shooters should get to the free-throw line before they start firing three pointers. For Gilbert, at least in those instances, it was just running the offense and getting a good look before he looks to score in any other way.
Gilbert was lights out in those games after getting his game established through the pick-and-roll. That’s the system that is in place in Orlando, and despite the fact that Gilbert made a career for himself in the isolation, he might find that while he is playing at only a fraction of his ceiling, the best thing for him (and for Orlando) might be to establish his game through the pick-and-roll, and let the rest of his game flow out of that. Especially since it’s hard to tell what Gilbert’s post-injury “ceiling” is.
Arenas’ spot up shooting percentage skyrocketed after the first few plays in those games. Similarly, if you look at the games where Gilbert’s performance was unwatchable (scoring two or less points), you will see that most of his misses come from isolation or spot up situations where he hadn’t yet “established” his game yet. In other words, no easy baskets, no early free-throws, no involvement in the offense.
This is a new situation for Gilbert. He’s getting close to 40 percent of his offensive production within the pick-and-roll, and those types of adjustments take time. The big question for everyone is whether or not Gilbert is going to be this bad forever. Is his day done? Did his injuries seal his fate? It’s hard to say. He is still under the age of 30, and it seems like if can get back up in the 75-80 percent range of his physical game he is still possibly going to be an asset in the future (if not in the postseason).
But the bigger question might be whether or not Gilbert is willing to accept his newly defined role with the Magic. This is what leadership is all about, and the doubts some fans are expressing towards Gilbert stem from what I think is basically a lack of faith that he has this willingness.
When Orlando made the trade to get Arenas, Otis Smith said “all those guys coming in have an ability to move the ball.” Was he right, in Gilbert’s case? Magic fans have hoped for a spark from Arenas that they have not yet been treated to.
Even if Gilbert’s recovery is progressing normally, you can’t “heal” from a lack of interest in the game. That’s a huge problem for Orlando right now. From my analysis of Gilbert’s play with the Magic, I’m not worried about Gilbert’s physical ability to be an asset. Just as they would with any scoring guard looking to fit within a team, some nights are going to be a struggle for Gilbert. However, if he gets his offense going through the Magic’s system, he can be productive, and should only improve. For anybody who remembers the hot shooting “Hibachi” days of old, Gilbert will always be a little bit of a disappointment. But the hope, according to Otis Smith, was for a refreshing and rejuvenated piece to the puzzle.
The Magic are getting the exact opposite of that at the moment.
It seems like it is gut check time for Arenas. That’s not going to be a question of putting up big numbers every night. It’s going to be a question of finding his place in the system, recognizing his strengths and weaknesses within the Dwight Howard castle, and executing like a smart basketball player.