On April 4, 2007, the Washington Wizards' fortunes were changed forever. It was a meaningless game against an irrelevant Charlotte Bobcats team that had been eliminated from playoff contention weeks earlier. The Wizards were up 21-15 with 2:09 left when Gerald Wallace caught a pass, drove baseline and flipped in a layup.
Then this happened.
It seems like only yesterday that Gilbert Arenas was one of the most popular players on the planet. People remember the big shots, the big games, the ridiculous scoring averages and even the off-the-cuff quotes. Arenas had a reputation as a loose cannon and volume shooter in the vein of Allen Iverson, but this does a disservice to just how good he was at his peak.
At age 25, Arenas had evolved into the hands-down best player on a team that was 39-33 with 10 games left before the playoffs began. He was averaging 28.4 points per game, more than Kevin Durant averaged this year, while maintaining an above-average true shooting percentage. He didn't play the right way or try particularly hard on defense, but don't get it twisted, this guy was more than just empty stats. There was a legitimate case to be made that he was a top ten player in the NBA. The advanced metrics back this up, as Arenas' Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus (RAPM, an advanced statistic that examines a player's effect on his team's bottom line while accounting for the level of their competition) was the sixth best in the NBA, right behind Dwyane Wade and ahead of Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
Arenas' rehabilitations and re-injuries lasted forever, were the source of much drama and ruined his career. After tearing his meniscus, he came back briefly at the beginning and end of the next season, but looked like a shadow of his former self as a scrappy Washington team led by Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison lost to the Cavaliers in six games in the first round of the playoffs. Arenas went on to sign an enormous contract and, well, you know the rest. He played two games the next year, struggled the year after that before having his season cut short in December due to Gungate, and was traded for Rashard Lewis halfway through the following season.
What would have happened if Arenas never got hurt?
Arenas' initial injury effectively killed Washington's chances of making a deep playoff run in 2007 or 2008. Had he been healthy and continued to play about as well in 2009 as he did in 2007, it's still possible Washington would have missed the playoffs, largely due to the absence of Brendan Haywood and a lack of quality bench players. And by 2010, when Washington made it's last attempt at winning now, Arenas was 28, an age when players with similar physical profiles typically have already begun to decline. The following year, injury or no, Arenas would have been 29 and, while he'd have probably been very good, I don't think he would have been a good enough player for a team to build around.
No Arenas meant that the Wizards were swept in the first round of the playoffs in 2007. The East was weak then and the Wizards were in first place at the all-star break, so perhaps they could have gone on a run. However, Caron Butler was about to be out for the season with a hand injury and the team was beginning to taper off, so it's unlikely the combined efforts of Arenas and Jamison would have been enough to overcome a Cleveland team that was good enough to make the NBA Finals. It might have been a six-game series loss instead of four, but the Wizards were going to lose that series no matter what that year.
The 2008 season is where things start to get interesting. This was the year that a scrappy Washington team won 43 games in spite Arenas' absence. That year, Washington was the only team in the NBA to have a winning record against the eventual champion Celtics. Haywood was one of the few players with the requisite size and strength to guard Dwight Howard, so the Magic were at the very least beatable. The Pistons were in the last season of the Chauncey Billups era and looked good, but not great. And the Cavaliers, whose second best player was either Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Anderson Varejao, were still coming together after a mid-season trade that sent roughly half the roster to Chicago.
If Arenas had been healthy, 2008 would have presented him with his best chance at making a deep playoff run and rising above the irreverent chucker label he'd unfairly received. Washington lost in six to the Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs that season, but I think a player of a healthy Arenas' caliber would have been enough to put them over the top and finally get a series win over LeBron and the Cavaliers. From there, they'd have either lost to the Celtics or gotten extremely lucky, made it to the Conference Finals, and lost to the Pistons. No, they wouldn't have won a championship, but they could have given a great team a scare and gone deep into the playoffs.
After 2008, though, I think a healthy Arenas would have only meant losing a lot of games instead of a whole lot of games. Haywood, the teams' defensive anchor, missed most of the season after injuring his wrist in the pre-season. DeShawn Stevenson, an underrated 3/D player at the time, shot 32 percent from the floor -- not from three, from the floor -- due to back troubles. While neither player was great per se, they were the perfect complements to lax defense and volume scoring of the Butler-Jamison-Arenas core. Washington might have scored 110 points per game with Arenas throwing lobs to JaVale McGee and Nick Young every night, but they'd have given up 120 and found themselves in the lottery for the first time in years.
The resulting high draft pick might have been enough to fetch the king's bounty of Randy Foye and Mike Miller that the fifth pick brought -- or, of course, helped the team -- but I'm not sure a healthy Arenas would have been enough to prevent the 2010 team from underperforming. Washington was 10-20 at the end of December that season. How many more wins would an at-full-speed Arenas have generated? Two? Three? Even five? Washington would have been lucky to play .500 ball that year, largely due to a lack of quality role players, three-point specialists and defense-oriented bigs.
At this point, Washington would have needed to rebuild. Best-case scenario, Arenas would have been dealt for a package similar to the one Deron Williams fetched for the Jazz. Washington wouldn't have had the opportunity to draft John Wall, since they'd have won too many games to have a realistic shot at the top pick in the 2010 draft. Instead, they'd have probably gotten a good young prospect, a veteran on an expiring deal and one or two late first-round draft picks.
It's not a good thing that Gilbert Arenas blew out his knee. Regardless of what he's done to tarnish his legacy, he gave the Wizards three thrilling seasons in which fans could root for a truly elite player for the first time since Wes Unseld was rocking short shorts. That said, you could also argue a healthy Arenas would have slowed the team's rebuilding process down considerably and prevented the team having the opportunity to draft a franchise player instead of hoping to get lucky and break the bank in free agency.
Winning 40 games and losing in the first round isn't so bad when your team hasn't been relevant in 20 years, but it can be the worst position an NBA team can be in. They're too good to get a different maker in the draft, likely capped out too much to sign anyone elite and they have almost no chance of winning a title. Washington was awful for a few years after Gerald Wallace fell on Gilbert Arenas' knee, but those terrible seasons directly led to the team's current incarnation, a squad with more long-term upside than any of Arenas' teams.
There's no telling just how good or bad Washington will be over the next few years, but it's at least not totally inconceivable that Wall could eventually lead them to a title. That's something that, for all his charms, Arenas never could have done.