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.