Gilbert Arenas

So, I was thinking now would be a good time to talk about Gilbert Arenas.

First of all, I’m an unabashed Gilbert fan; I’ve always found him to be one of the NBA’s most interesting people, in addition to one of its most gifted players. And after everything that’s happened over the past few years, I’m glad he finally has an opportunity to make a fresh start in Orlando.

That said, I’m not sure he can help the Magic very much at this stage of his career.

Before we talk about the present, though, let’s go back in time a bit and take a look at Gil’s game in better days. At his best, Gilbert was capable of making a major positive impact on his team. From 2005-09, the Wizards were 127-116 (.523) in the games Arenas started and 63-104 (.377) in the games he didn’t. In 2007, Gil was my dark-horse MVP candidate because Washington was a staggering 14.1 pts/100 poss. of efficiency differential better when he was in the game vs. when he was on the bench. And the Hibachi’s adjusted +/- scores from 2006 + 07 ranked him among the top difference-makers in basketball.

Looking at the box score data, it’s not hard to see why Arenas’ presence on the court made Washington so much better. In 2006 & 07, he was the most efficient high-usage player in the game — better than Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, or Dwyane Wade. He was a stellar initiator who could create for himself (57 TS% while taking 30% of the Wizards’ shots when in the game) or others (he assisted on 27.1% of his teammates’ buckets as well). His .471 FTA/FGA was absurdly high for a guard (meaning he was getting to the rim with impunity), he was deadly on pick-&-rolls, and he was an expert at making plays in buzzer-beating situations. Even his much-maligned defense deserved a second look in 2007, with a -2.1 on/off-court split. Simply put, Gilbert Arenas was one of the NBA’s elite players in 2006 and 2007.

Unfortunately, a torn MCL at the end of the ’07 campaign started Arenas on a downward spiral that culminated in his exit from Washington this weekend. He played only 15 games in 2008 and 2009 combined, then was markedly less effective in his 2010 comeback before the infamous gun incident shut his season down. And ostensibly playing second fiddle to John Wall in 2011, Arenas has shown little of the dynamic Gilbert we saw in 2006 & ’07.

Which brings us to today. With the Heat & Celtics rolling and the Magic struggling to keep pace, Orlando clearly needed to upgrade their offense, the 15th-ranked weak link that all too often betrayed their 4th-ranked defense. To that end, Orlando dealt a slumping Rashard Lewis for Arenas, plus shipped Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat, & Mickael Pietrus to Phoenix for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, & Earl Clark. Obviously, this dramatically changes the way Orlando will operate on offense, and it also creates a backcourt logjam with Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, & Arenas all vying for playing time (and FWIW, Stan Van Gundy says Nelson’s job as starter is guaranteed).

If Arenas was still the Gilbert of old, this would have been just the kickstart Orlando’s offense needed, but unfortunately he has given few indications that he’s still capable of that kind of impact. Arenas needs the ball in his hands to facilitate himself and others, and was actually leading the Wizards in possession usage (26.2%) despite professing to be Wall’s sidekick. When he’s in the game for the Magic, he will almost certainly be their #1 usage man on the perimeter. Trouble is, Arenas has produced just 1.02 pts/possession since 2008, and is sitting at 0.98 so far this season (compare to Carter’s 1.11 and the league average of 1.07). Unless Gilbert can somehow channel his 2006/07 self again in a new environment, Orlando will be allocating a quarter of their possessions to a player who’s instantly their least-efficient option, plus damaging their defense at the other end.

Now, maybe Gilbert can still create opportunities for others by shaking up Orlando’s increasingly stagnant offense. According to SPM, he’s still worth +1.13 pts/100 poss. above average offensively (and was worth +4.06 last season), despite the poor efficiency stats. But the most troubling fact of all is that Arenas’ overall on-court impact, once profoundly positive, is now subpar. His adjusted +/- for 2010 & 2011 combined is -1.46, a steep drop for a player who had never been below-average from 2003-2007.

Based on the numbers, one has to conclude (sadly) that the Gilbert Arenas Orlando just acquired is not the same version we saw before his injuries and personal travails. He’s settling for too many jumpers, no longer drawing fouls, no longer avoiding turnovers, no longer scoring efficiently, and consequently he’s not having the same positive impact on his team. As one of my favorite players, I’m rooting for Agent Zero to buck these trends and rediscover his game in Florida — but as it stands now, I’m not sure he can make the kind of difference Orlando is counting on.

About Neil Paine

I work for Sports-Reference.com. I've been a freelance writer for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and Basketball Prospectus.

Posted on December 20, 2010, in Analysis, Player Audit and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 64 Comments.

  1. “Would Oliver’s formula have predicted that the Wizards would perform the way that they did in 2008 sans Arenas?”

    I’m sure one could run a Monte Carlo simulation to answer that question.

    But David, even if you had no knowledge of the stats presented here, keep in mind that the Wizards went from 4th in offense to 12th in 2008, dropping two points in efficiency in a league environment that was more conducive to offense. Alot of that is because their star player wasn’t in the lineup (the Wizards essentially had the same roster both seasons). Isn’t that a reflection of what Gilbert brought to the table when he was healthy and playing at his best?

  2. The Wiz did have an essentially unchanged lineup in ’07 and ’08, and it’s a pretty good laboratory for the effect of removing a star player. But no formula can predict that 6 of 8 players are going to make dramatic improvements from one year to the next.

    Did Arenas ‘depress’ the statistics of his teammates? He probably took more than his share of shots, but he shot a lot better than most of the others.

    He missed the last 9 games of 2007, and the team went 2-7 in that span.
    Non-Arenas Wizards had shot .492 eFG% before Arenas went down; those last 9 games, they dropped to .476.
    Wiz opponents had shot .516 through 73 games, then .523 in the last 9.

    The team’s TO% was 12.6 with Arenas, 13.3 without him.

    Team FT/FGA was .274 with Arenas playing, .251 without him.
    Opponent FT/FGA rose from .249 to .283 .

    Team ORtg was 110.1 for the year, after 9 games at 104.1 .
    DRtg wound up at 110.6, with 9 games at 109.4 .

    Losing 6.0 ppg on offense, gaining 1.2 on defense, translates to a net loss of 4.8 ppg.
    A team with a +4.8 point differential wins 51-52 games.

  3. Anon:

    I had knowledge of the stats being presented here regarding Arenas. Back when he was actually putting up all of those stats I wrote that I did not think that a team with him as the best player would ever get past the second round of the playoffs and all of those stats were recited to me, along with the charge that I must “hate” Arenas; I think it is safe to say that no one who strongly believes in the value of those statistics would have ever predicted–or even considered it possible–that the Wizards could subtract Arenas (in 2008) without suffering at all in terms of winning percentage. I don’t “hate” Arenas, nor do I hate those particular stats–but I am not convinced that Arenas was ever an elite player, nor I am convinced that those stats have much predictive value concerning an individual’s impact on a team’s performance.

    Even if the stats that you are citing accurately describe Arena’s impact offensively–and I am skeptical of that because Arenas was such a high variance performer–half of the game is defense and Arenas made very little contribution at that end of the court, something that not only affected his individual matchup but also trickled down to the rest of the team: when the team’s best/most vocal player does not place a high value on defense it is very difficult to build a defensive-minded team.

    So, let’s assume that you are correct and Arenas’ presence made the Wizards much more efficient offensively; since their record did not get worse without him it is therefore logical to say that his presence at the defensive end had just as much negative influence: if you are going to say that he won games with his offense then you also have to say that he lost games with his defense. Otherwise, you are just looking at half of the picture and cherrypicking numbers to try to support the premise that Arenas was an elite player.

  4. Mike G:

    If a formula has no predictive powers (or very limited predictive powers) then what is its value? Obviously, no formula can perfectly describe reality or predict every possible outcome but if a formula says that a given player is an elite player and we end up with an almost perfect laboratory experiment that strongly suggests otherwise then it makes sense that at some point we should examine the formula to see if it can be improved in some way. This situation (the 2008 Wizards) is so fascinating precisely because it is about as controlled of an NBA experiment as one could hope to see in the real world: the Wizards lost Arenas in his prime for virtually a whole season but otherwise had essentially the same player rotation (and the same coach with the same philosophies).

    However, your example regarding the end of the 2007 season has serious issues. One, the sample size is obviously very small. Two, you neglected to mention that Butler also missed those games; I mentioned that early on in this thread, so perhaps you missed my remarks about this, but I pointed out to Neil that not only should the 2009 games that Arenas missed not be assigned to Arenas’ prime but the Wizards’ winning percentage during Arenas’ prime was more sensitive to Butler being out than to Arenas being out: “(In 2007-08) 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 [in 2008] (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.”
    The reason I noted that five of the losses with Butler included Arenas’ presence is that we have not proven that Arenas had a positive impact on winning, so Arenas’ presence may very well have “contaminated” the sample with Butler–for all we know, the Wizards may have won even more of the games that Butler played in if Arenas had been replaced by Daniels in the losses.

    In 2006-07, the Wizards were 37-26 when Butler played and 39-35 when Arenas played. If Butler had played more games in 2007-08 it is likely that the Wizards’ winning percentage sans Arenas would not just have matched their winning percentage with him but even surpassed it. Butler missed 19 games in 2007 and 24 games in 2008 so our “laboratory experiment” is sound (in terms of rotation similarity other than Arenas being in one year and out the next) but since the Wizards fared much worse during this period without Butler than they did without Arenas it is certainly fair to speculate that if Butler had played, say, 80 games in 2008 then the Wizards may very well have broken the 50 win barrier sans Arenas (something that they never did with him).

    We also have another example, which I cited above, regarding T-Mac; the “laboratory experiment” is not quite as controlled but during the first several years that he played in Houston the Rockets essentially had the winning percentage of a 50-plus win team when he played and a lottery-bound 24 win team when he did not play (T-Mac’s absence made much more of a difference than Yao’s absence during that time frame, a time frame that pretty much coincides with Arenas’ prime Wizards’ years).

    So, as we look at our various “data points” and try to draw the most accurate possible conclusions, we see that when Arenas played alongside other All-Stars in Washington during his prime the team was barely above .500 and when he missed virtually an entire season the team hardly missed a beat–but when another team during that same era was without the services of their All-NBA guard their record dropped dramatically. I just don’t see how one can look at all of these “data points” and state with great confidence that Arenas was an elite player.

  5. David, I would argue that an individual’s impact on team defense in basketball isn’t as strong as his impact on offense. Perimeter players aren’t as important on that end as the men in the middle are, and while Gilbert certainly wasn’t a lock-down defender (1.8 defensive win shares per 3000 minutes) I wouldn’t tie so much of the jump in defensive efficiency to his absence from the lineup. Unless you think that Antonio Daniels was so much better than Gilbert at defense than Gilbert was than Daniels at offense.

    FWIW – and I admit that the sample size is small here – in the games that Gilbert played in 2008, the Wizards were actually pretty good on defense.

  6. Anon:

    The point is that there is not a valid way to prove exactly what an individual’s impact on defense is; this is one of the shortcomings of basketball statistical analysis at this stage.

    Chess masters note that one incorrectly placed piece makes the whole position bad and I would argue that an analogy could be made to team defense in basketball: one incorrectly placed player breaks down the whole scheme. Also, as a point guard Arenas served as the first line of defense: when he broke down by allowing dribble penetration and/or leaving his man open this resulted in a chain reaction.

    Also, I don’t understand why we should believe samples of questionable value (the 2009 Wizards’ record, posted two years after Arenas last played at a high level and after he had injuries that likely permanently reduced his abilities), small samples or advanced metrics with questionable predictive value when we have larger, more significant samples that all suggest that even at his best Arenas was not an elite player:

    1) We have three seasons when Arenas was healthy and put up his best individual numbers yet could not make the Wizards into anything more than a slightly above .500 team.

    2) We have almost a full season that the Wizards played without Arenas right after arguably his best season and the Wizards did not decline despite making no other significant changes to their rotation.

    3) We have the stats that James provided, which support my observation about Arenas being a high variance player.

    4) We have the example of T-Mac, an All-Star/All-NBA guard who had a much greater impact on his team’s record than Arenas did during the mid-2000s.

    All of these “data points” indicate that Arenas did not add many wins when he played, that the Wizards did not lose any wins when he was out and that a legit elite player (i.e., T-Mac) does affect his team’s record. On the other side, we have individual metrics that indicate that Arenas performed efficiently offensively but these numbers tell us nothing about how this correlates with wins or how much Arenas cost his team defensively–and we have the fact that the Wizards were terrible in 2009, but it could be strongly argued that the absence of Haywood and other factors were more important than Arenas being out that season (particularly since Arenas being out in 2008 had no discernible impact in the standings).

  7. “Chess masters note that one incorrectly placed piece makes the whole position bad and I would argue that an analogy could be made to team defense in basketball: one incorrectly placed player breaks down the whole scheme.”

    It widely known that some players are more important to defense in basketball than others. Namely the center and interior defenders – mainly because especially at the pro level, even the best perimeter defenders can be beat off the dribble, and a great defender in the paint can make up for it. These guys ANCHOR their squads defensively. The other important thing to keep in mind is that a staple of a great defense is great help defense. One-on-one confrontations certainly take place, but only within the context of a team defense that is primed and in position to defend wherever the ball is on the floor. Defense in basketball is more team-based than offense is, and the best defenses boast these two qualities.

    With all that said, it’s hard to believe that Antonio Daniels, a player that started for Gilbert when he was injured, was THAT much better than Gilbert defensively (if he even was at all; he was ALSO a below average defender) he offset the advantages that Gilbert brought to the team offensively, thus enabling the Wizards to maintain a solid record. You’re gonna have to rethink that one.

  8. @anon

    Perhaps Gilbert wasn’t that much worse than Daniels on the defensive end, but he strongly influenced the entire squad as the “go to guy.” As has been mentioned, Arenas is known to take shots not conducive to winning and was an “all or nothing” type player. Daniels, on the other hand, was a drive and get fouled type player who didn’t force shots. He would more often than not make the right play. Case in point, Arenas has a career 1.7 assist/turnover ratio, while Daniels is at 3.09. While the overall offensive team rating dropped, the individual performances (as mentioned elsewhere here) of the other players suddenly became “career years” offensively when Arenas missed time.

  9. Anon:

    If you talk to any good basketball coach, he will tell you that a good defensive team has to be “on a string”–if one player is not on that string, then the whole defense collapses. You are right that it is very important to have good interior defenders but it is also important and valuable to have a guard who either puts pressure on the ballhandler or at least stays in front of him and prevents him from easily getting to the hoop (this depends on whether the coach’s philosophy emphasizes pressure or just playing sound, fundamental defense–for instance, Larry Brown’s best teams were known for their “jump/switch” defense, while Popovich’s Spurs do not go for a lot of traps or steals).

    You are right that good NBA defense is not primarily based on one on one confrontations but my point is that Arenas is a bad team defender; he takes gambles and is often out of position and those kinds of things break down a team’s defense.

    I am not sure what you are asking me to rethink. The author of this post theorized that Arenas was at one time an elite player and the first piece of evidence that the author cited was the Wizards’ record with/without Arenas. I pointed out that 2009 should not really “count” as part of Arenas’ prime and that during Arenas’ prime we have three years in which he played and the team was little better than .500 plus one season in which he missed virtually the entire campaign without the Wizards declining. The body of evidence suggests that those who theorize that Arenas was an elite player have to do the rethinking.

    Also, I am not completely convinced that the issue here is as simple as figuring out how much Arenas added offensively versus how much he subtracted defensively. Arenas was a high variance player offensively during his prime, as James’ stats pointed out. When Arenas was hot the Wizards had a better chance to win but victory was hardly assured–but when he was cold the Wizards were almost certain to lose. Removing Arenas from the lineup in 2008 probably led to much less variance offensively and that is another reason that the Wizards did not suffer as much in the standings as some might have expected.

  10. Westcoastslant,

    Offensive production for the Wizards dropped across the board sans Gilbert in the lineup. The only players who “improved” on that end were Haywood and Butler, and Butler went right back to his usual offensive production in 2009 (a season which Gilbert was also out of the lineup). This goes right back to the efficiency/usage model that has been discussed here multiple times. “Bad shot” Gilbert was still taking and converting tough shots that other teammates couldn’t do as effectively without him on the floor.

    David,

    I’m not saying that perimeter defense isn’t important, just not AS important as interior defense. You can go back throughout NBA history and see a great big man for pretty much every great defensive team (even the 90s Bulls, with terrific perimeter defenders like MJ and Pippen, had guys like Grant, Cartwright, Rodman, etc. in the paint). The bigs are more valuable to your team defensively, and you’ll “miss” them more from your lineup than a perimeter defender.

    You’re right about Neil using the Wizards record with and without Gilbert as evidence, but he isn’t one to emphasize win-loss record with/without players in the lineup. I think he was mainly focusing on the points he made in the following paragraphs as proof of Gilbert’s impact. By the way, WOUDLN’T it make sense that in games the Wizards didn’t win, Gilbert didn’t play well? He carried alot of his team’s offense — the difference between him at his his best and guys like LeBron who are obviously better players is that the teams they played on could at times compensate for subpar games from their stars with their defense. Something that the Wizards were never known for.

  11. Anon:

    This is not about the relative importance of interior defense versus perimeter defense; as I said, team defense must be played “on a string” and if one player is not on that string then it is impossible for a team to be very effective defensively. Moreover, the central question here is the thesis posed in this article that Gilbert Arenas used to be an elite player. I disagree with that thesis for the reasons that I already explained and I disagree with citing the Wizards’ 2009 record as “evidence” that Arenas had a great impact on his team’s record because (1) there are many other factors that explain why the 2009 Wizards were not good, (2) there is no evidence that Arenas had a great positive effect on the Wizards’ record from 2005-07 and (3) the Wizards survived virtually an entire season without Arenas and posted the same slightly above .500 record that they posted with him during his prime.

    It makes sense that “in games the Wizards didn’t win, Arenas didn’t play well”–but it does not make sense to call a high variance offensive player who was also a poor defensive player an elite player unless there is some strong statistical and/or anecdotal evidence showing that he had an elite level impact. We have established that Arenas did not have a significant impact on his team’s record and we have established that the Wizards were quite capable of absorbing the loss of Arenas’ individual offensive efficiency. So what reason is there to believe that Arenas was an elite player. Neil made it quite clear why he enjoyed watching Arenas but there is a big difference between being a popular/fun to watch player and being an elite player on the level of Kobe or LeBron.

  12. “We have established that Arenas did not have a significant impact on his team’s record…”

    No, WE have not. You have this foregone conclusion, and evidence be damned.
    Several Wizards were entering their prime just as Arenas’ chronic injuries began. The loss of Arenas negated major improvements among his teammates. With a healthy Arenas, the Wiz almost certainly win 50+ games in ’08.

    This is of course just an educated guess. You guess that the team would not have been greatly better with Arenas. That’s your prerogative, and maybe Arenas is one of those rare all-NBA players who do not add many wins. Would there be any others?

  13. Mike:

    I don’t have a foregone conclusion; I am simply reporting what four full seasons of evidence say: three seasons with Arenas healthy during his prime plus one season with Arenas not playing due to injury right after arguably his best season. I am also suggesting that the 2009 season is not relevant to this discussion, an important distinction because when we remove the “noise” in Neil’s sample from those irrelevant games we are able to see that during Arenas’ prime his presence/absence had no real effect on the team’s record.

    You asked about other examples. I have already cited T-Mac as an example of an All-NBA player who had a very significant impact on his team’s record. Since Neil is the one who wrote this article and proposed the thesis that Arenas was an elite player the burden of proof is really on him to find examples of elite players who had such little impact on their team’s record for an extended period during their prime. The Arenas sample covers four years.

    During Arenas’ three best healthy seasons with the Wizards the team never won more than 45 games or made it past the second round of the playoffs even though he had at least one All-Star caliber teammate plus a good supporting cast each season. A useful comparison is that Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to 45 wins in 2006 in the tougher Western Conference with no All-Star teammates, with a starting pg (Smush Parker) who never had success anywhere else and soon ended up out of the league and with one of the worst starting centers in the league (Kwame Brown). So, the individual efficiency stats that are being thrown around here say one thing but when we look at the bigger picture we see something else entirely: Arenas had a good supporting cast in a weaker conference but could barely get his team above .500 during his prime–the same team that could play slightly above .500 without him–while an elite player like Bryant was able to carry a very weak team to the playoffs in a stronger conference.

    A team’s win-loss record is a fact. Individual offensive efficiency, as defined by the stats you are citing, is a theory; someone else could weigh the boxscore numbers differently and come up with a different theory. Also, even if Arenas was as efficient offensively as you believe there is still not an adequate measure of how inefficient he was defensively.

    Regardless of what the theory about Arenas’ offensive efficiency says, the facts show that Arenas missed virtually the entire 2008 season, the Wizards made no significant changes to their main rotation, Caron Butler missed 24 games and the Wizards still posted roughly the same winning percentage that they did during the previous three seasons. Another aspect of this situation that is worth remembering is that the Wizards’ record during this time frame was far more sensitive to Butler missing games than to Arenas missing games. You say that the Wizards might have won 50 games if Arenas had been healthy in 2008 but there is no evidence supporting that contention: he was healthy for the three previous seasons and they did not win 50 games. However, if you look at the Wizards’ record with Butler but without Arenas during 2008 it looks like the Wizards might have won 50 games if Butler had been healthier.

    Which specific key Wizards’ players do you think just entered their prime in the 2008 season? Jamison was 31, Butler was already an All-Star and Arenas’ replacement Antonio Daniels was 32. There is a fallacy in believing that the Wizards who showed improvement sans Arenas would have been even better in 2008 if Arenas had played; perhaps these players performed better in 2008 precisely because they were not sharing the court with a shot-happy guard who did not play much defense.

    If your thesis is that Arenas had a significant positive impact in the win column during his prime–which would also mean that his absence with no other significant roster changes would have a negative impact in the win column–then you are should look for better evidence to support this thesis. My evaluation of Arenas is that during his prime he was an All-Star caliber player (i.e, one of the top 20 or so players in the league) but he was a high variance offensive threat who was below average defensively and displayed poor leadership qualities on and off of the court. When he did not play the Wizards missed his offensive explosiveness to some degree but ultimately they could live without this by performing better in other areas (playing better defense, being less explosive but more consistent offensively, having better game to game focus and work habits with guys like Butler and Jamison having a bigger voice). My evaluation is based on actually watching what took place when Arenas played and when he didn’t play, as opposed to assuming that certain stats are infallible or that a player who is considered fun to watch by some (Neil mentioned that he is a big fan of Arenas) must be having a big impact on winning.

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