Gilbert Arenas talks about his struggles learning how to balance scoring and distributing

You've probably already read about how Gilbert Arenas admitted he's having trouble figuring out his role in Flip Saunders' offense.  It's a pretty obvious thing to notice when you're watching, and I found it really enlightening, if still concerning, that Arenas opened up about it. 

But I also disagree with both beat writers, who seem to wonder whether there's some sort of rift between Arenas and Caron Butler.  Their evidence?  Butler didn't get a shot down the stretch, and then made some postgame comment that indicated he liked how Earl Boykins got him the ball in good spots.  The implication Michael Lee makes is that Butler was indirectly calling out Arenas, and while I don't think that's the case, I was talking to Arenas when Butler said that, so I suppose it's possible. 

That said, I want to post Arenas post-game interview in full and then try to get at what might have actually happened down the stretch for Butler to not get any shots.  I'm thinking the problem is that Arenas didn't step up to get the ball enough, not that he was hogging it and looking off Butler.

If you want to follow along with the Arenas interview transcript, here's the audio. 

Gilbert Arenas talks after the Wizards' loss to Detroit.

 

Can you talk about the way Earl [Boykins] played tonight?

He did great tonight.  But that's what Earl does.  Me and Earl played together my second year.  We went from 19 wins to 40 wins, and the only additions were me and him, so we played well together.  I think he's going to help us this season.

Talk about getting all the pieces back healthy together as you approach the Cleveland game.

The funny part with Antawn coming back now is that now we have to jell and get him back into the flow.  Hopefully, it can be a quick turnaround.  Players have been dropping, players have been added, so we just don't have the rhythm we would like right now.  But we've never really been a team that's played November very well.  Since I've been here, December has been our month.

Why haven't you guys been able to sustain your effort for 48 minutes?

I don't know.  I don't know if I'm sitting out there just watching.  There's always a half or a quarter where I don't shoot and I don't score.  Before, in Eddie [Jordan's] system, he needed me to score 30.  In this system, I don't have to, so not shooting for a whole quarter doesn't really bother me because we have other player that are scoring.  But then, when I try to get into a rhythm, I don't have that feel, so I have to find a way to keep myself in the game the whole time.

Is this system too complicated?  Is that what's tough?

No, no.  It's just that you have so many weapons.  You have Mike Miller, you have Caron [Butler], you have Andray [Blatche], you have Earl.  You can relax and let them go.  But then I find myself in the fourth quarter realizing I haven't shot the ball yet, and I get up to the free throw line and boink it.  I just have to find out how to keep my rhythm throughout the whole game.

(A question about the defense, which I'm skipping through)

What's been the toughest thing for you?  Is it coming back and running the team?  Is it finding your rhythm?

I think the assist to turnover ratio is what's bothering me right now.  I find myself doing more thinking than I am just reacting off my instincts.   Players in this league, they react.  I was a reactor.  Now, I find myself being a thinker.  Just like the Miami game, I'm sitting there concentrating on getting assists.  Averaging eight assists, averaging nine assists, because I want to be labeled a "point guard."  So, I catch myself forcing assists.  Today, I just found myself saying "I'm going to forget the turnovers, go out there, and just do whatever.  I ended up getting 10, and I was like "Jesus Christ." (smiles)

Do you want to go back to the old free-flowing style of Gilbert Arenas?

You know, even Earl said it when he first came here.  He said, "I remembered the angry Gilbert in Golden State.  All that Gilbert did was get a whole bunch of technicals and tear up the locker room.  You just got to go back to being yourself.  Go out there, have fun, laugh, play silly.  That's when you play your best.

Do you think you need to be off the ball more to get going?

I was off the ball in the fourth quarter (laughs).

So then, were the shot just not coming for you?  Was the ball not finding it's way to you?

I don't know, I just relaxed.  When Earl's out there, he's out there doing his thing, and I'm going to let him do his thing.  When Caron got going, Caron got going.  Sometimes, there would be periods where the ball just didn't find me.

You feel like if you stay consistently aggressive on offense, that'll spread the floor for others?

That's how it was before, in Eddie's system.  He just told me "Attack, attack, attack, 24/7."  In this system, I have the ball so much where if I just attack, attack and attack, I'll sit around and score 60.  I'll just be ball-hogging.  So I have to take myself off the ball and take my mind out of shooting.  If I just attack, I'll just attack every play, and I can't play like that.

When you were talking about thinking too much about assists, is that from having been away the past two years, or is it being in a new system?

It's being in a new system.  (Pauses).  And being away.  You see players out there like Chris Paul averaging 20 and 10.  They consider him the best point guard [in the league], so you put in your mind that in this system, I can go average 20 and 10, so let me go average 20 and 10.  And then I catch myself trying to force assists.  Like, in the Miami game, I took 27 shots and had 3 assists.  I'm sitting there saying "Shit, I can't do that."  So the next game, we play Indiana, and I take 10 shots.  Then, I look, and I see 3 assists.

Is there anywhere else in your game, other than the system adjustment, where you think you're struggling to get back into a rhythm from being off for a while?

You would think shooting, not having my legs.  I can see in my free throws, I don't have a feel for it.  I'm practicing them, and they feel good then, but in a game, I just don't have a rhythm for it.  Other than that, not really.

Is it frustrating that you haven't found that comfort level?

It's frustrating because we know what kind of talent we have.  It's frustrating for me because I know I can take over in fourth quarters like I have been doing, but I don't want to take away from the team.  [DeShawn Stevenson] got mad at me today, because in the fourth quarter, I only took three shots.  Before, this wouldn't have happened.  He said, "You would have taken over the fourth quarter even if you had to take every shot."  But I don't feel like I have to do that this early because of what we have here.

Now that it's not working, do you see yourself going back?

I don't want to get into that situation.  We have Antawn [Jamison] coming back, and we have to get him into the flow.  You know, it's only been nine games.  We can find ourselves out of this.

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I always used to think that the whole "the true test of a superstar is how he makes his teammates better" theory was a load of bull spit.  I just didn't really see how a superstar could wield so much control over his supporting cast.  Did Kobe Bryant really become better at "making his teammates better," or did his teammates just change from Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum?  Is Steve Nash responsible for making his teammates better, or did Phoenix just do an exceptional job at putting the right complimentary pieces around Nash?

But listening to Arenas talk, it's clear that there might be something to it.  Here you have a Wizards team that, even when shorthanded, has some guys who can really put up points.  They're being plugged into a system where sharing the basketball is the whole point.  Without sharing the ball, the system doesn't work.  It's also a system where the point guard plays such a huge role in determining who gets the ball when.  When that point guard is also someone with supreme scoring ability, it's a tough role to balance.  Hearing Arenas admit he's completely out of rhythm when he takes a backseat to let others score only drives the point home. 

That's why I find it hard to believe that Arenas is ignoring Caron Butler.  Butler is getting his shots.  Nearly 25 percent of the Wizards' possessions when Butler is on the court end in a Butler shot attempt, drawn foul or turnover.  That's not as high as Arenas' mark, but it's higher than where Butler was at in his two all-star seasons.  The problem with Butler is twofold.  First, he's not converting the attempts he gets, and second, he's not creating good enough shots for himself or for others when he does get the ball.  It's hard for me to believe that Arenas is both freezing out himself and Butler.

What really happened down the stretch on Saturday displayed that Arenas the off guard in crunch time isn't a good idea.  Boykins was the one who dribbled the ball up the court.  Arenas was the one trying to pop out and catch the ball.  When it didn't work, which happens a lot with Boykins because Boykins tends to pound the dribble a lot, Boykins created something himself.  When Arenas doesn't get a chance to catch and create, then Butler suffers too.  At least that's how it should be -- Arenas creating with Butler finding a way to play off him.

Basically, my read is that both Arenas and Butler were phased out, at least relative to how much they should have received the ball.  I don't really think Butler should be getting the ball and isolating down the stretch.  He's not as good at that as Arenas is, even with Arenas struggling to get into a rhythm. 

All that said, something about our crunch-time setup needs to change.  I have two suggestions for that, neither of which are mutually exclusive.

  1. Give Arenas the damn ball and let him make plays.  No more of this "playing Arenas off the ball down the stretch" garbage.  The best closers in the game -- Kobe, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade -- always get the ball to start possessions in the fourth quarter and then consequently get help and make plays for themselves or others.  Arenas is one of the few players in the league with the capacity to drive for a score himself or find an open teammate.  He's still learning how to do both at the same time, but having someone else bring the ball up the court down the stretch doesn't fix any of that.  Now, should Arenas go off the ball earlier in the game?  Absolutely.  It allows guys like Boykins and Randy Foye to do their thing and get into the game while Arenas still maintains a rhythm.  But down the stretch, you need to trust your best player to make the right decisions.  This Wizards team is sinking or swimming with Arenas anyway.
  2. Run more Arenas/Butler screen plays late rather than early, and run them at the top of the key: The play I'd really like to see the Wizards run down the stretch is the one Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki have been doing for years in Dallas.  Have Butler set a high screen for Arenas and the fade to the pinch-post/elbow area in the middle of the floor.  Don't have Arenas jet to the hoop just yet.  Instead, have him try to force a switch, so that a smaller guy gets switched on Butler.  Then, either decide to take the bigger guy off the dribble, or lob it into Caron and let him go to work one step from the lane.  If Caron gets doubled, swing it and get an open shot.  This keeps Butler involved while ensuring that Arenas is trusted with the ball in his hands.

It's not an easy fix, of course, but it's also a problem Arenas is well aware of.  This is a situation where the Wizards need to rely on him, now more than ever.  This isn't the type for them to scale back his capacity for decision-making in the offense. 

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