Thursday, March 22, 2012

Notes on Gilbert Arenas

Posted By on Thu, Mar 22, 2012 at 2:23 PM

Emerging from my week-long hoops hiatus for some belated notes on the Gilbert Arenas signing, one I endorse with tempered expectations and minor reservations.

I'll wade into other issues surrounding the team — the rusty return of Zach Randolph, the disappointing reduction in Tony Allen's playing time, the threat of Marc Gasol fatigue, other curious rotation changes — over the next few games, as they remain relevant.

Gilbert Arenas
  • Gilbert Arenas

Sam Young/Gilbert Arenas as Unintentional Fallout: The two roster moves that I missed last week are related, and not just in that gifting Sam Young to the Philadelphia 76ers presumably freed up the money under the luxury tax to sign Gilbert Arenas to a rest-of-season contract. Both moves were also made necessary by the eve-of-the-season trade that sent Greivis Vasquez to the New Orleans Hornets for Quincy Pondexter.

The Grizzlies did great work early to fill their dire frontcourt needs with the low-cost acquisitions of Marreese Speights and Dante Cunningham, but the Vasquez-Pondexter trade was an unnecessary gamble that essentially became a two-for-one. Vasquez has averaged more than 23 minutes a game with a very high assist rate, viable shooting, and a PER (14.8) right at the league average, solidifying himself as a high-level reserve in the league. And this is a leap that the team should have seen coming. Thankfully, for the Grizzlies, Pondexter has made a noticeable — if less dramatic — leap as well, his energy and improving shooting making him a valuable bench player as the season's progressed — at least until a somewhat mysterious decline in minutes and production the past three games. Pondexter's not as meaningful a player, at least yet, as Vasquez, but he is a legit contributor.

The problem with the deal has been its impact beyond that simple player-to-player contrast. Adding Pondexter and getting back Rudy Gay had, understandably, pushed Sam Young out of the rotation, devaluing a cost-effective contributor to the point that the Grizzlies dealt him for no return in an accounting-maneuver-style trade. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies had made the deal to begin with out of a misplaced faith in unproven rookie Jeremy Pargo, who has — unsurprisingly — not been ready for consistent rotation minutes.

The deal created a need at point guard that wasn't already there without appreciably upgrading the team's wing rotation. It made no sense, and the ultimate fallout happened last week. If Arenas pans out and Pondexter gets back on track, it's a mistake that will be easily forgotten, at least in the short term. But that's how we got to where we are.

Arenas the Player: Zach Lowe at CNNSI did a nice long piece this week on what we might be able to expect from Arenas and how he could address a need for the Grizzlies. I had previously written about how unacceptable Pargo and Selby, with their killer turnover rates, have been in the back-up role.

There's little doubt that Arenas, if at all functional, should be an upgrade over the rookies. But the last time we saw Arenas on an NBA court he was barely functional, averaging 8 points a game in 21 minutes for the Orlando Magic last season, while shooting 34% from the floor and 28% from the three-point line.

Arenas has been an elite scorer and multiple-time All-Star in the NBA and is still only 30 years old. But he's had multiple knee surgeries — including one this past summer — and hasn't played a full, effective season since 06-07. And while he's thought of as a shooter, he's always been more quantity than efficiency in that regard, with a career mark from long-range of 35%. What made Arenas a special player early in his career was a lightning first step. That's gone, and it's not coming back.

Nevertheless, if Arenas can push his three-point shooting back toward the mid-30s, he'll be a big upgrade over the rooks. He'll likely run a smoother pick-and-roll, becoming more of a threat as both a shooter and playmaker, and will be a much bigger threat off the ball.

But the question no-one seems to be asking is whether this base-level Arenas would really be an upgrade over O.J. Mayo? Pargo and, to a lesser degree, Selby have played a lot of back-up point-guard minutes for the Grizzlies, but they've been so bad that Lionel Hollins has been forced, for the first time, really, to give Mayo some of those minutes too. And Mayo's held up pretty well. At this stage in his career, Arenas is a 6'4” shoot-first combo guard — not a real point guard — with deep range but a likely erratic shot and pedestrian athleticism. Isn't this what Mayo is now? Chances are good Arenas will be a poor-man's Mayo. And if that's the case, I'd rather see Mayo getting those 8-10 minutes a game behind Conley, especially since it's difficult to get both Mayo and Tony Allen the minutes they need if both are restricted solely to scoring guard.

I endorse the Arenas signing regardless, for the sake of adding veteran depth and shooting, but come playoff time, the Grizzlies should give rotation minutes to the best players, and there's a good chance that, when Conley's off the floor, that could still be Mayo.

Arenas in the Locker Room: Despite the transgression in Washington that ended his season in 09-10, I'm so unconcerned about this it's almost not worth writing about. Arenas does not arrive with the stature or expectations that Allen Iverson brought to his brief tenure with the Grizzlies. And as bad as the incident in Washington was, it was so bad that I assume it's shocked Arenas into more stable behavior. Arenas has been one of the great characters in the modern NBA, but doesn't really have a history as a bad guy or serious troublemaker. I wouldn't anticipate any off-court problems with bringing him in and, if there are any, the investment is so minimal that I suspect he would quietly exit in the manner of Jason Williams last season.

Arenas the Representational: I'm late on this signing and my friend Bethlehem Shoals has already written a nice piece for GQ.com about Arenas and how his peculiar persona is potentially such an interesting fit — like Zach Randolph and Tony Allen before him — with the Grizzlies, writing about how “Memphis, quietly, has turned into a home for outlaws and rejects, a kind of Bad News Bears of the NBA.”

I'd encourage you to read the entire piece. But I'd also underscore the point with something that Shoals doesn't mention: How the pairing of Arenas to the Grizzlies with Derek Fisher to the Thunder in the same week seems almost too perfect a contrast in this regard. Fisher is a Mid-South native that the Grizzlies, I'm sure, would have been interested in having. But players like class president Fisher — the ex-Laker, the multi-time champion, the union leader, the Friend of Bill, Mr. Always Says the Right Thing — don't sign with the Grizzlies. They sign with the the Thunder, the Grizzlies' small-market rival with the whiz-kid GM and the marketable future MVP. The anointed. The golden children of the new NBA.

The Grizzlies — the upstarts, the party crashers, the band of misfits and cast-offs who aren't supposed to be in the mix— get the class clown Arenas instead. Of course they do. They get the tarnished angel, the colorful faded star, the once-banished, Mr. Good Intentions Gone Awry.

This is as it should be. And if we're lucky enough to get another Thunder-Grizzlies playoff series later this spring, it's going to be a delicious subplot.

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