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David Aldridge

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Arenas' return puts Wizards' dilemma in spotlight

By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Mar 29 2009 2:23PM

WASHINGTON -- High risk, high reward.

It's going to be that way for the Washington Wizards as long as they tie their fortunes to Gilbert Arenas, and as long as he teases, and temps, and posts a double-double in his first basketball game in almost a year, they will.

The Wizards continue to be the most maddening, interesting, frustrating team in the league now that Arenas is back at the wheel, as he was in the final seconds of a 98-96 loss (Box Score | Recap) Saturday to Detroit, in his first game after a third surgery on his left knee during the preseason. As ever, he is a roller coaster teetering on the edge. Go slower, and it's a boring kiddie ride. Go faster, and you will have the thrill of your life -- but you may well die. So what will it be?

Through an agreed-upon limit of 28 minutes (his playing time for the forseeable future), Arenas dimed up the Pistons, getting layups and dunks for teammates, and, despite going 3-for-12 from the floor, still scored 15 points through his usual array of treys, drives, stepback jumpers and free throws. He also got blown by by Detroit's Rodney Stuckey and didn't put much pressure on the ball, which helped lead to a half-dozen wide open jumpers from Rip Hamilton.

And on the key play of the game, with Washington down three with 5 seconds left, Arenas drifted ever so slightly to the left when receiving an inbounds pass instead of shooting the gap straight up the middle, where two teammates were building a wall for him to have an open look at a 3-pointer. That allowed the trailing Hamilton to give a foul.

Little things like that have kept the Wizards from being a real winner for years. But more on that in a few paragraphs. This night was first and foremost about Arenas' return after missing 89 percent of Washington's games during the last two years, recovering from microfracture surgery in 2007 and an arthroscope last fall.

"The best part of this is that I actually stuck to the program of rehabbing," Arenas said afterward. "My leg is 10 times stronger than before ... at the end of the day, I had to find out where [my knee] is at."

Arenas says he can now squat 505 pounds after committing to a weightlifting program for the first time in his life. Starting seven days a week (since curtailed to three times a week), he hit the weightroom. After his first surgery, he didn't built up his quads, leaving his legs weaker than they should have been; he says the second knee injury occurred, in part, after he had taken a painkilling shot for a wrist injury during last year's playoff series with Cleveland, and didn't realize he'd hurt his knee again in Game 2 of that series.

"I was like, 'why am I limping?,'" he said.

But instead of pushing it this time, Arenas listened to the Wizards' doctors and trainers, who prescribed a lengthy rehab. He was supposed to be back in January, but the doctors said not yet, and he didn't push them. He practiced with the team for six weeks before getting the green light to return to the lineup. Saturday, after a pregame text from former coach Eddie Jordan told him to let the game come to him, Arenas spent most of the night being a facilitator. But he got $111 million from Washington this past summer because he can put the ball in the basket like few others.

And therein lies the Wizards' dilemma going forward.

With Arenas, Caron Butler and Antwan Jamison leading the way, Washington is always going to be an offense-first team. But that's only gotten the Wizards one playoff series victory in four years. People around here revere this group, as if it's gotten to two or three Finals during this run. Part of the reason is Washington's utter futility as a franchise in the two decades before Ernie Grunfeld and Jordan came to town. Part of it that the Arenas-led Wizards are fun to watch, and he's such a compelling guy.

To wit:

Gilbert, were you upset that you weren't introduced last in the starting lineup, like most superstars?

"Nah. It's not like if you're introduced last, you get a car."

Gilbert, why didn't you do pool rehab as well as lift, which is less taxing on the joints?

"You know, you get in the pool, and it's like, 'okay, kids, let's go swimming.'"

He's really an interesting guy.

But his team isn't close to being a factor in the NBA.

It clings to the memory of having the best record in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break in 2007, but that was two years ago, when the Celtics didn't have KG and Ray Allen and Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau; when the Cavaliers couldn't throw the basketball in the ocean; when the Magic didn't have Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, and Dwight Howard was still in Superman School. Times have changed. The East has changed. The Hawks are good now, for Dominique Wilkins' sake!

All those teams -- and Miami, and Philly, and Milwaukee, and Charlotte -- have gotten serious about defense.

The Wizards talk about defense, then don't play any.

And, assuming they replace interim coach Ed Tapscott this summer (full disclosure: I've been friends with Tap for more than 20 years; I'm not impartial on this deal), don't they have to bring in someone who'll make them value that attention to detail, those little things than cause them to lose games -- especially at the defensive end?

Doesn't that mean a guy like Avery Johnson, for example?

The Wizards would probably hate him; he's hateable when he's coaching. They'd curse him when he made them run "17s" until they puked. They would also close out on screen-rolls and put ball pressure on opposing point guards.

On the other hand, they'd probably love a guy like former Timberwolves and Pistons coach Flip Saunders. The Wizards, after four years of Princeton-based offense from both Jordan and Tapscott, are a system team, and Saunders is a system coach, still among the most innovative minds in the game -- "an offensive genius," one of the Pistons said afterward. Saunders would get the ball to the right guys at the right time.

But he's never been confused with Pat Riley when it comes to making demands on defense. And it appeared -- from the outside, anyway -- that he didn't have the respect of Detroit's veteran players, most notably Ben Wallace.

Still, my Piston Prophet says Saunders got a bum rap when it comes to his defensive bona fides.

"He had a lot of good zone principles. But it took us a long time to buy into him, coming from L.B. [Larry Brown]," the Pistons player said. "If we had bought in from the beginning, it might have turned out differently."

But Arenas' biggest project may be working through things with his teammates. Not the kids that he ripped in the Washington Post; really, does anyone care outside the Blatche family if Andray Blatche is upset with Agent Zero? (The Wiz are hoping to dispatch a couple of their knucklehead youngsters this summer, anyway.) Gil's issues will be with his fellow Big Threers, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. They all respect one another, and in their heart of hearts, they know Arenas makes everyone better.

But that doesn't mean he's easy like Sunday morning.

"He's a different guy," one member of the Wiz organization says, and that's not likely to change.

"We need him to understand how important he is to this team," Jamison said. "The same with Caron, the same with myself. Not just Gil, but big-time players on this team have to sacrifice next year. I like the example of the Paul Pierce situation. When Garnett and Ray Allen came, Paul was giving you 24, 25 a night. But he realized that that's not what it's all about anymore. It's about sacrificing for the sake of the team. That 24 can go down to 19, 20. But guess what? Number one seed, I'm understanding my role ... Gil can average 30 if he wants to. But what's wrong with dropping that down to 25, 26, and getting everyone else involved, and taking over at certain points of time?"

That question will hang over the Wizards the rest of this season, through the lottery, and the draft, and the next (likely) coach, and into next season, its answer uncertain, the franchise careening from joy to terror and back again in 1.9 seconds, wondering if the wild ride will ever end, half wishing it would, half hoping it doesn't, the mercurial Arenas at the wheel, laughing and smiling and holding the future in his gifted hands.

Send your best wishes, replies and snark to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. I'll probably read your remarks. Probably.

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