Zero Sum Game
Can Gilbert Arenas get his groove back?
Now Gilbert sits back and watches from afar. He laughs at accusations of $10,000 trips to water parks and $100,000 wardrobes, and asks if Toys R Us even makes $60,000 toy train sets.
“What made it final this time was where I said, Who cares? Because I didn’t have an image to protect anymore. I was already a felon. Already got in trouble all last year. It’s not like I had this good guy image anymore. Throw black on black, basically. It’s already a black spot. Throw more black on it, it’s still black.”
It’s a transformation for the usually very outspoken Arenas. But felony gun charges, an indefinite suspension and 30 days in a halfway house can do that to a player. As is well known by now, in late 2009, Arenas brought guns to the Verizon Center locker room. He eventually pleaded guilty to a felony of carrying an unlicensed pistol and was suspended for the rest of the season. Gilbert maintains the whole thing was a practical joke gone awry.
“You ever had someone say, ‘If you keep talking shit, I’ma slap you?’ And you’re like, Pshhh, do it? It’s one of those. I was the one saying, Do it. He said something and I’m like, ‘We’ll see.’ That’s where it was. You said you’re going to shoot me, so I want to see this happen. I was calling his bluff. That’s who I am.”
The same competitive edge that goaded Gilbert into a horrible situation off the court is what has transformed Gilbert into Agent Zero on the court. It made him invincible. It allowed him to see and complete passes other players wouldn’t even attempt, gave him the confidence to shoot 30-foot pull-up jumpers. But the gun incident did more than taint his reputation; it officially ended his mischievous Gazo the Pranksta persona and chipped away at his confidence.
“Yes, I regret it,” he says. “It made me docile. Instead of being this aggressive Great White Shark that’s always on attack, I’m the lazy one sitting at the bottom. I’m a bottom feeder. Over the summer, I had this mentality that I couldn’t be stopped. Then I walked into the arena for media day and I had my ‘work hard’ beard and it was like, Bam! I just lost it right there.
“I wasn’t competitive again. I left that building like, I don’t feel so tough anymore. When I broke, I broke, and everything was over when I broke. I broke at media day.”
After losing five of six games early in the season, Magic President Otis Smith felt as though they needed “a little bit more punch.” So he dealt away Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus to the Suns for Jason Richardson and Earl Clark, and in a separate deal, sent Rashard Lewis to Washington for Arenas.
The assumption is that Smith was doing Arenas—whom he’s known since Gil was drafted by the Golden State Warriors nine years ago—a favor. But with the way Gilbert was playing in the first half of the season for the Wizards and his known take-over ability and point/shooting guard duality, it seemed like a no-brainer. But besides a nine-game winning streak the moment he donned a pinstriped Magic jersey, at press time Gil had made only 34.4 percent of his overall shot attempts and just 26.4 of his three-point attempts. He was averaging 5.3 points and 2.7 assists.
Think back to the Gil of the past. A three-time All-Star. His deliberate work ethic and impressive skill set made him one of the most dynamic players on the court, while his pranks, humor and likeability made him one of the most charismatic players off the court. He scored at will, marking that with a career average of 21.5 ppg and 5.5 apg. He’s had three 50-point games, 26 40-plus-point games and topped all that with a 60-point game in ’06. Despite his diminishing stat line in Orlando, he was on his way to a pretty impressive year in Washington: 17.3 points, 5.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
Besides a dizzying array of footwear the blogs love, the Hibachi hasn’t really been fired up in Orlando. He dons a No. 1 now and the Zero went from being on the back of his jersey to a number in the box score. He may be helping the guys off the bench, but it’s obvious he’s struggling on a personal level.
“He hasn’t had a great opportunity to do all the things that he wants to do, but it’ll come with time,” center Dwight Howard says. “I think once his knee gets better, he’ll get better. He’s playing on one leg right now, so once he gets his other leg straight I think we’ll see a new Gilbert.”
But is it really his knee that’s holding him back? “If you gave me—hypothetically because I’m not going to get it anytime soon—if you gave me 38 minutes, I’d give you 25, 9 and 6 assists,” he says. “I had the same knee last year and I was averaging 22 and 7. I had this knee the beginning of the season and I was averaging 17, 7 and 6. It’s the same knee.”
He’s no longer playing 36-plus minutes a game. He isn’t the go-to guy anymore. And he’s definitely not putting up Agent Zero numbers.
“You know, I averaged 29 and that’s all people see, but I also had two other players that averaged 20 with me, so I did do a lot of passing. Part of my game is trying to get everybody involved and then I get aggressive,” he says. “I’m not playing the 38-to-42 minutes that I used to play where I could take my time, get everybody involved and still dominate. Right now I’m comfortable coming off the bench. Basketball is basketball. I may not have confidence in my shot, but Ryan, JJ, they have theirs and they know I’m looking for them when I get in.”
“I can play the game. It’s just right now I’m in a limited role. And if you see my production in that limited role, if we’re down, we’re going to be up. If we’re up, we’re going to be up further. If you look at any big game that we win, I’m in that stretch,” he says. “I guess people look at the numbers and not the production. As soon as I get here, we go on a nine-game winning streak. Ryan Anderson is all of a sudden playing basketball out of this world. Who’s finding him? Or JJ? Who’s finding these guys?
“But nobody really looks at that. It’s just the stat line.”