Commish: Sick with the Flip
Can Flip Saunders guide Arenas to PG greatness?
Even before Flip Saunders took over as coach of the Washington Wizards, a basketball junkie could look at Gilbert Arenas and think, “Man, if this dude ever channeled his inner-Billups, he’d be really scary.” Chauncey Billups is like the poster child for mega-talented point guards that eventually learn to blunt their own scoring brilliance for the good of the team. He’s not the first, but he’s most recently successful example of the “combo guard” or “hybrid guard” settling into being a top flight point guard. (Isiah Thomas, the greatest of them all, a guy that could have averaged 30 if he wanted to, never attempted more than 16 shots per game during the Pistons contending years.)
You can argue who, aside from Billups himself, is most responsible for this (Billups said of Larry Brown: “Larry made me believe that I could have 10 assists, a couple of steals and only nine points and still dominate the game. Nobody ever made that point to me that strongly. He made me a more cerebral player and a better all-around player.”); but you can’t argue that Billups first came into his own, as a pro point guard, under Saunders in Minnesota.
After the preseason and the first few regular season games, it looks like Arenas is making that same transformation as the orchestrator of Saunders offense, but it’s still a work-in-progress.
Players like Arenas or Billups or the old Stephon Marbury or any of the other gifted “hybrid guards” of the past decade are blessed with the ability to get off basically any shot they want, when they want. There’s a supreme difficulty, howev in recognizing when to roll on a lame and when to pump the brakes and get Teammate X, Y or Z involved. The great NBA point guards do more than bring the ball up the court — they orchestrate offense, control tempo, feed hot hands and a host of other things.
Arenas, as Agent Zero, hasn’t always been the best maestro throughout his career. It’s true that he’s been the point guard on offensive-juggernaut squads with multiple 20-point scorers, but Wizard games were often “frenzied.” The thing is, some of us have forgotten that Billups wasn’t always Professor Control — especially not those early years when he bounced around the League, choked by a “shoot-first point guard” noose around his neck.
Nick Van Exel (not exactly Steve Nash) once said straight-up: “When Chauncey was in Denver, he would play point guard for about two minutes, and then, for whatever reason, for the other minutes he was out there, he was out of control a little bit.”
But it’s not like Van Exel was throwing unnecessary salt on Billups’ game. In 2006, after Billups had won a Finals MVP and was on his way to his first All-NBA selection, he admitted that “it took me a while to understand that a shoot-first point guard can mess up a team’s rhythm. I can understand why some teams wanted to get rid of me.”
Then he got to Minnesota. Early in the ’01-02 season, Wolves starter Terrell Brandon was injured and Billups was inserted into the starting lineup. He was still figuring out the point guard dance of when to push and when to chill. That season, Wolves general manager Kevin McHale said, “My problem with Chauncey is that sometimes he’s too focused on running the team. I tell him, ‘Once you’ve initiated the offense, you’ve done your thing. When the ball comes back out, you’ve got to be aggressive and look to score.’ “
Billups found that balance midway through that season and hasn’t really looked back since. Arenas, if he wants to, can be Billups and more.
Friday, on the heels of Arenas’ new-leaf 21 and 9 in the season opener, Saunders said that Arenas has a “great feel for the game,” which helps in his kind of offense where point guards have the ball in their hands “85 percent of the time.” But Saunders took it a step further and said that Arenas is special in that he’s capable of being a combination of all the point guards he’s coached. Billups liked to walk it up, he said, but Arenas can play that game and speed up the court. He can score with Marbury, but in a more complete way, since he finishes as good as any guard in his generation. Terrell Brandon, Sam Cassell — Arenas, said Saunders, can do everything they could do and more. To hear Saunders tell it, Arenas can do it all. The trick, though, is figuring out how, where and, most importantly, when to do everything involved in “it all.”
Saunders said that he uses his past experience with point guards when dealing with Arenas, relating examples of what Billups or Cassell or Brandon would do in certain situations, preaching the “cerebral side of the game.” We saw Arenas doing a nice Billups impression in the season opener. He orchestrated things and controlled the tempo so well that Saunders said he can’t even really recall the crowd being a part of the game, a sign that the point guard (Arenas) was puppeteering the action.
The Wizards second game against the Hawks wasn’t as kind. After blasting out of the gate with a quick nine points on three treys, Arenas turned in a miserable, herky-jerky, Mr. Hyde performance — a bunch of ball-pounding, charges, turnovers (7) and ill-timed, bailout jumpers.
At the end of the game, Arenas just sat at his locker, glum and silent, waiting until the room basically cleared before he readied for reporters. His answers were basically just a few syllables of mumbles. The body language was clear — he was disappointed. Saunders, on the other hand, was fairly nonchalant about the whole thing, saying Arenas is still going through the process of finding his rhythm, lest we forget that he’s been out for close to two years.
“I still thought he was pretty effective,” Saunders said.
You don’t morph from a scoring dynamo to a more understated floor leader in the matter of a few games. But, despite this early hiccup, Arenas, under Saunders, seems headed in that direction.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM, a contributing commentator for ESPN and writes the weekly “From The Floor” column for NBA.com. You can email him your feedback at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @vincecathomas.