By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Mar 28 2009 10:23PM
This whole folderol about whether Gilbert Arenas should play this season or stay on the Washington Wizards' bench is the biggest non-controversy since that 50 Cent and Kanye West "beef." You know, the kind of beef where each guy sells a kajillion CDs and downloads?
Of course Arenas should play.
What, exactly, is the point of keeping him on the bench a moment longer than necessary if he is healthy and cleared by the team's medical staff? And he's been cleared for full-court practices since the All-Star break.
The naysayers (and they're mostly Wizards' fans; no one outside of D.C. cares much about a 17-56 team) seem to fall into two camps: those who are worried that Arenas is pushing it and could injure himself again by playing in meaningless games, and those who are worried that Arenas playing will lessen the Wizards' chances in the Lottery, with a big prize awaiting the team that gets the first pick. (It's likely that this year's prize is currently an undergraduate power forward playing for a school that is geographically above Texas, but because you're reading this on NBA.com, I can't mention his name until he officially declares for the draft. Smart people have figured out it isn't Greg Paulus.)
Let's take these one at a time:
Arenas first injured his left knee 103 weeks ago, on April 4, 2007. Since then, including playoffs, he's missed 139 out of Washington's 156 games. He's played 17 games in two years. He's had three operations on his left knee, including a microfracture procedure. He's 27 years old. The Wizards gave him a contract last summer for $111 million. When would be a good time for him to get back on the court? This summer, playing in Vegas, with undrafted free agents and Jabronis that are trying to make a name for themselves? Or maybe on D.C.'s Barry Farms blacktop, where Arenas used to play pickup in the summertime with local, star-struck kids?
He's got to test his knee sometime. He's got to see if it holds up. He's got to play again. What's the point of all this, otherwise?
When Bernard King came back from his knee injury with the Knicks, he missed an entire season, then played in what appeared to be six meaningless games at the end of the 1986-87 season. But they weren't meaningless. They gave King the confidence that all the months and months of solitary, painful rehab had paid off, that he was whole again. (That he averaged 22 points and shot almost 50 percent from the floor in that mini-return didn't hurt, either.) King went on to play four solid seasons for Washington, including an All-Star season in 1990-91.
My buddy Eric Snow, as ever, cut to the heart of the matter when we were talking about Arenas this week on the NBA TV set. If Arenas plays in a handful of games before the end of the season, then he can have a normal summer. He can work out and continue to strengthen the knee. He can also take some time off, go on vacation. He won't spend the whole offseason obsessing (and you know that's a Gil trait) over whether he should get some work in under game conditions. He'd be less likely to bug the Wizards' front office about playing on their summer league team.
And when training camp begins in the fall, he'll know his knee held up. There won't be any question marks. He can prepare for the regular season just as if nothing had happened instead of pushing himself to the limit.
The second concern is that a healthy or near-healthy Arenas will help the Wizards win some games -- which, perversely, is not what many Washington fans want now. This goes back to the old, wrong conceit that losing teams should tank at the end of the regular season in order to improve their Lottery chances, because the team with the worst record gets the most ping-pong ball combinations when the first three picks are awarded, and thus, gets the best chance at the first pick.
This is a fallacy.
One, tanking goes against everything we say we revere about sports: playing through adversity, putting forth one's best effort, and, hello, trying to win the game. (Herm Edwards, white courtesy phone.) We don't live our values only when it's convenient to do so. What kind of message is that for kids who are Wizards fans? Try your best ... except when you can get something good out of not trying your best. What kind of message is that for hard-working fans who shell out professional prices for tickets and expect a professional effort in return?
It's called fraud, people. And it's an insult to veterans like Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, who have shown up most every night, knowing they were going to get their butts kicked, and given a full effort, trying to be leaders, trying to be responsible.
When you let losing into your locker room, it seeps into everything, like a chemical spill. And it's a bear to get rid of. There's a reason that the Clippers and Kings and Wizards and Grizzlies and Timberwolves have spent entire decades at the bottom of the NBA barrel: you start losing, and you expect to lose. You aren't bothered when you lose. You laugh on the bench while you're losing. You don't get into fights in practice when you lose. And while the league will insist otherwise, believe me: losing teams don't get the benefit of the whistle.
You become losers.
Two, the historical record doesn't bear out the notion that the teams with the worst records get rewarded in the Lottery system. In its various incarnations, the Lottery has been around since 1985. That's 24 Lotteries going into this year's, which takes place May 19. In those 24 years, the team (or teams, in case of ties) with the worst records have received the first pick in the draft ... four times. One-sixth of the time. About 16.6 percent, on average. It's happened twice since 1991. Last year, Chicago had a 1.7 percent chance of getting the first pick; the Bulls had fewer chances than eight teams, including Miami, which had the worst record. But the Bulls got Derrick Rose.
Two years ago, I was working in Philly, and the locals were all up in arms about how the Sixers should throw games down the stretch in order to have a better chance at Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. Look at Boston, they cried. The Celtics were tanking, and they were going to get rewarded for it. The season ended with Boston at 24-58, which should have netted the Cs the second pick in the draft.
They picked fifth.
Memphis, at 22-60, should have picked first.
The Grizz picked fourth.
Ironically, by not being rewarded for tanking, the Celtics ultimately were that year's biggest winners. If Boston had gotten the first pick, it would have kept its young core and taken Oden or Durant, and would still be going through the growing pains of playing with young players. Instead, Boston traded the fifth pick to Seattle for Ray Allen, the deal that convinced Kevin Garnett to accept a trade to Boston two months later. Voila. Banner number 17.
Moral: Leave the Lottery to the Lottery Gods.
The Wizards aren't stupid. Arenas is their star, and they won't throw him out there for 40 minutes against Detroit this Saturday. They won't play him in back-to-backs. Their only chance to be relevant again next season is with a healthy Arenas leading the way. A healthy Arenas only happens if he works through the kinks and adhesions, and gets his wind back, and gets his groove back.
"My swag is phenomenal," Arenas famously said when he was whole, and one of the league's most exciting players.
There will be no swag on display Saturday. But you have to start somewhere.
Send your salutations, best wishes and snark to email@example.com.
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