You could see the flashes. Gilbert Arenas was getting it.
He was coming around Dwight Howard screens and not looking to hoist the first jumper he could. He was probing and waiting. Finding the right seam and the right time to turn on the jets (or hit turbo or surprise his defender with what little speed remains in his wobbly legs).
Arenas may have looked like he was in slow motion, but there was no denying in Games Four, Five and Six of Orlando’s first-round playoff loss the old Hibachi made a brief appearance as he attacked the basket and slipped and lobbed some nice passes to his roll man, Dwight Howard.
What the final three games may have shown that there might be some gas left in Arenas’ legs. He scored 11.7 points per game — 20 points in Game Four — while shooting 44.1 percent from the floor and 2.7 assists per game in 20.9 minutes per game during the final three games of the series. These are obviously very modest numbers, but compared to his 8.0 points per game and 34.4 percent shooting in 21.8 minutes per game for the Magic this year.
At long last, it would appear Arenas found something resembling consistency. Of course, it was short lived because the rest of the team could not find its consistency and the season ended.
Now comes the perhaps haunting realization that Orlando is staring down the eighth-highest paying contract of 2011 for the next year and potentially three seasons (Arenas has an early termination option in 2012). With Arenas positioned as Orlando’s highest paid player for the foreseeable future (good luck trading him), everyone within the franchise seems to need to find a way to accommodate him.
That appeares to be what Otis Smith wants between his protege and Stan Van Gundy: “There’s some growth there that needs to happen as it relates to him,” Smith said of Arenas to Zach McCann of the Orlando Sentinel. “Their relationship is going to have to get a little bit better. The relationships in the locker room with one another is going to have to continue to get better.”
Both Arenas and Van Gundy have to make adjustments to get the most out of the mercurial point guard. And it was difficult for Van Gundy to do that in the middle of the season. Part of the problem is that Van Gundy can be a stubborn guy. And part of the problem is Arenas’ health.
Arenas just could never find his rhythm until he attacked the basket, something that he still might lack the explosion to do. Arenas — and Van Gundy — may have realized too late what what they both needed to do to be successful.
“In Game Four and Game Five, he realized that I’m useful so he used me,” Arenas said. “Before the playoffs, I was just sitting in corners. I wasn’t a part of the offense. The offensive is built for Dwight [Howard] and shooters, and I’m more of a creator myself.”
Those last three games may have done a lot for Van Gundy to build some confidence in Arenas. Or may have done nothing at all.
The plain fact is that Van Gundy trusted Jameer Nelson and Gilbert Arenas never earned that trust. Again, part of that blame belongs on Van Gundy for never finding the right way to use Arenas. And part of that goes on Arenas for never finding a way to fit his game into the role Van Gundy wanted for him.
It was not like Arenas ever lacked confidence in himself. Arenas still believes he can be an elite player. As he told Nada Taha of SLAM Magazine:
“If I’m played right, I could be,” Arenas said. “I’m still dominant. You’ll have one of the most dominant players coming off the bench, but you have to use him.”
“I’m never getting the touch or feel of the game of basketball. Most guys that come in as a backup, you’re coming in and just managing the game. Don’t do anything stupid,” Arenas told Taha. “He’s (Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy) told me to be aggressive, but still …this is how I felt. At one point it’s like, once I get out there, I know I have this short window. I can’t be mediocre; I have to be great in this seven-minute span. So I’m going out there and if I don’t make my shot, I’m like, Ahhh, I can’t shoot anymore. If I miss another one then it’s two missed shots.
“I’m sitting there thinking, OK, don’t make any mistakes because any mistake could get you subbed quicker. So now I’m not being aggressive, I’m being passive, so I’m basically just out there, so he subs me even faster. It’s like a little circle.” (Seriously read Nada’s article)
Arenas was second on the team in usage rate at 23.7 percent, ahead of Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson and heavy usage reserves Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass (those two are heavy users because their possessions often end in shots). But unlike Dwight Howard, Carter, Nelson or even Anderson and Bass, Arenas posted a 19.3 percent turnover rate. Nelson had a 17.6 percent rate and Howard a 16.2 percent rate., but Arenas only played in 21.8 minutes per game.
With fewer possessions, Arenas’ turnovers have added weight and, as Arenas related, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle where the free-wheeling Arenas can’t be himself.
After working out with Tim Grover this summer and getting healthy, Arenas’ next biggest task is to get more comfortable in the offense and learn to protect the ball. He has to play with the same aggressiveness and will to get to the basket as he did in the final three games. He already has the feathery touch on his passes and vision to return to being an efficient player. The question is, and only his health can decide this, can he return to an elite level.
The next question is can he do it while with Van Gundy?
Van Gundy certainly never got a handle on Arenas’ talent. What Van Gundy was trying to do with the team (without a training camp) never really fit Arenas’ style. It will be imperative that Van Gundy tailor the offense more to suit Arenas’ talent. It will also be important that Arenas regain the confidence he had in Washington to go out, attack and be himself all while fulfilling a role — whatever that role is — with the Magic.
For better or for worse, the Magic are married to Gilbert Arenas right now (nobody believes Arenas will exercise his player option in 2012) and the foreseeable future. For 2011-12 and the future to be successful, it appears Stan Van Gundy and Gilbert Arenas need to learn how to get along.
Photos via DayLife.com.