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Lesson 1: Correlation does not equal causation

A national television appearance provides those who haven't really been paying attention to the Gilbert Arenas-less Wizards to come out of the woodshed and voice their opinions.  And I'm not necessarily saying that's a bad thing.  Hell, if I were to turn on a college football game between Delaware and Appalachian State, I would probably do the same thing.  

Since the viewing audience saw the Wizards play well, and since the Wizards do have a 12-10 record even without Gilbert, there are going to be people out there who wish to speculate about whether that's because of Gilbert being out.  Quoth David Friedman of 20 Second Timeout.

Great players are supposed to not only produce numbers for themselves but also make it easier for their teammates to get open shots--and that applies even more so to a supposedly elite point guard like Arenas who has the ball in his hands all the time. If Cleveland's recent struggles in LeBron James' absence prove his value--and they do to a certain extent, even though other Larry Hughes and Anderson Varejao were also out of the lineup at the same time--then doesn't the Wizards' success without Arenas at least suggest that maybe he is not quite as valuable as so many people think?

Passion and Pride's Jon Burkett had this to say:
Without a shot at Kobe or LeBron, I'd rather have Iguodala and a guy like Leandro Barbosa or Ben Gordon as my chuckers than have a guy like Arenas to build around.  He better thank his lucky stars that Mitch Kupchak traded them Caron Butler for Kwame Brown.

For the role of Barbosa or Gordon, Willie Green and Lou Williams have been fighting it out on the Sixers.  For the Wizards, Butler is their Iguodala.  Without Arenas, it is because of a guy like Butler that they continue to win.  That's because BUTLER IS THEIR NUMBER ONE.

(Calm down, Jon.  Separate Gilbert the player from Gilbert the person).

What do I think?  I'm with Doctor Dribbles, this is too easy a story to write.  There are two things happening right now (Gilbert's injury, the Wizards playing pretty well), and it's very tempting to say one has caused the other.  Toss in a few cliches (make your teammates better, chucker, team cancer), and wallah, you have an opinion that, if one is simply reading in a vacuum of only this season, sounds good.

Of course, events don't exist in a vacuum, and as any statistician worth their salt would tell you, correlation does not necessarily equal causation.  Before anyone wishes to express the opinion that Gilbert's injury is the reason the Wizards are winning, consider these counterpoints.

1.  The Wizards' schedule.

The combined winning percentage of the Wizards' first 22 opponents in .496, which places them with the 13th easiest schedule, but that doesn't tell the whole story.  Before Gilbert got hurt, the Wizards played Boston, Orlando, and Denver.  The first was on the road in Boston's home opener, and the latter two were as second games of a back-to-back.  The Wizards' other two losses were against New Jersey on the road (a bad loss, in retrospect) and in overtime against an Indiana team that is looking surprisingly frisky this year.  Eight of the Wizards' 14 games played without Gilbert have been at home.  Those eight games were against Philadelphia, Golden State (a loss), Toronto (without Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani), Cleveland (without LeBron), Phoenix (a loss), New Jersey, and Minnesota.  Only two of the Wizards' nine wins during this stretch came against teams with winning records (Dallas, and Toronto, who, as mentioned above, were playing without Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani).  The point is, the Wizards are better than Miami, Minnesota, Philadelphia, LeBron-less Cleveland, Bosh-less Toronto, and Miami even with Gilbert hobbling around on one leg.  There's no reason to get excited about a 9-5 stretch against this type of schedule, with or without Gilbert.  

2.  Small sample sizes can be dangerous.

As an extension of point number one, funny things can happen in small sample sizes.  Take LeBron James, for example, the player who David Friedman held up as a counter to Gilbert Arenas.  Prior to this season, the Cavaliers were 9-4 in games that LeBron missed since they drafted him in 2003.  Even before this season, Cleveland was seen as a one-man team with NBDL-level talent beyond LeBron, yet they somehow had a very strong record without him.  But you didn't hear anyone saying the Cavaliers are better without LeBron, did you?  The reason you didn't is the same reason one shouldn't say the same thing about Gilbert.  Get back to me if the Wizards are near the top of the East in March.

3.  The rest of the team is better.

Now, naturally, as a counter to this argument, someone is going to say that Gilbert stunts his teammates, and without him, they're simply developing.  But that wouldn't be fair to guys like Brendan Haywood, who has been a new player this season, even before Gilbert went down.  It would be unfair to guys like Andray Blatche, Nick Young, and Roger Mason, who have stabilized a bench that was putrid beyond belief last year.  It would even be unfair to Eddie Jordan, who has proved he can coach in the wake of Gilbert's injury.  Gilbert may be the star, but is he really responsible for all of that?

If so, then doesn't he also have to be responsible for guys that have flourished playing next to him?  Isn't he then responsible for Larry Hughes, who had a career year alongside Arenas in 2004-05, cashed in with the Cavaliers, and has turned into one of the worst regulars in the league playing alongside LeBron, again, the guy seen as the prime example of a superstar who "makes his teammates better."  Isn't Gilbert also responsible for DeShawn Stevenson, who went from being a career journeyman who was forced to sign for the league minimum into a solid starter alongside Gilbert last season?  Consider also that Stevenson struggled mightily after Gilbert went down last season, and prior to last night, he had also been struggling thus far this season.  Also, even though Caron Butler has improved this year, he still had a career-year last year playing mostly alongside Gilbert.  Again, it's hard to ignore both sides of the coin in this example.

4.  Caron isn't shooting much more than before.

Last year, Caron Butler averaged 15.8 shot attempts per 40 minutes.  This year, he's averaging 16.9, which basically means for every 40 minutes Caron plays, he's shooting a whopping one additional shot.  You know who's picking up the additional shot attempts?  Nobody, really, because the Wizards are playing slower this year.  

To me, the assumption that Caron is playing better because of Gilbert is laughable.  You want to know why Caron is playing better?  Because Caron has drastically improved his game.  Working with Dave Hopla, Caron has a true shooting percentage of 60.2, and eFG% of 55.6, and a PER of 22.98, all career highs by a wide margin.  He's scoring over 2.5 more points per 40 minutes despite taking only an additional one shot in that same time period.  And surely Gilbert isn't responsible for Caron's improved three-point marksmanship, which has risen from under 30 percent in his career to over 46 percent this season.  

Caron's shooting at a similar rate to last season, when Gilbert was healthy and in the lineup.  He's just scoring more efficiently with the same number of shots, which would have happened even if Gilbert was healthy.

5.  We're talking about a superstar here.

I'll let WRG take it away.

The Wiz are more than Arenas, of course, and we DC-ites all enjoy the new look, but like Dwyer/Truthaboutit/HSCS point out, let's not pretend this team into a contender yet. Especially without Arenas. Over the past 15 years, nobody--not Webber nor Howard, not Butler nor Jamison, and certainly not Err Jordan--has been as dynamic or clutch in a Washington uni as Gil.

Before Gilbert game to DC, this team, and this franchise was absolutely lost.  Since Arenas has come, we've had three playoff appearances and the team's first foray into the second round since the Reagan administration.  Now, after a 14 game sample against bad teams, we're going to refuse to consider all that evidence.  As HSCS writes on Thank You Isiah:

Gilbert Arenas was #4 in adjusted +- last season (note to eggheads: I'm running out of mileage on kinda-one-season of adjusted +-), has 33+ win shares in the past 3 seasons, and is #49 on the all-time career PER list. For extra flavor, I'll even toss in a hated, very limited per game stat: Arenas is 22nd all-time in career points per game.

Arenas has a strong TS% (last season somewhat notwithstanding), gets to the free throw line, which is currently a problem with the Arenas-less bunch, averages as many assists as Tony Parker, and has a low turnover rate considering the amount of time he handles the ball.  He has singlehandily won many games for us during his tenure, and is among the best with his ball in his hands at the end of the game.  

I can't look into the future and forsee what will happen when Gilbert comes back.  I can't say with certainty that it will be a harmonious return.  But I think most of the evidence indicates that the Wizards are definitely NOT worse off without Gilbert on the court.  Do I know for sure?  Not really, but then again, neither do those that claim the opposite.