Denton: Arenas Hoping to Regain Old Form

By John Denton
January 14, 2011


MINNEAPOLIS – As brash and boisterous as ever, Orlando Magic guard Gilbert Arenas was telling a story recently about what he considered to be the good ol’ days, a time when he was thought to be the game’s most dazzling point guard and feared one-on-one players.

``Ask Chris Paul,’’ Arenas said to anyone who would listen as he went through a series of knee and ankle-strengthening exercises, ``ask him what it was like guarding me in 2006.’’

The point wasn’t so much that Arenas used to dominate one of the game’s best point guards, but that he had to delve four years into the past and seemingly a lifetime ago. So much – both on and off the court – has happened since then to Arenas that he’s hardly the irrepressible and unstoppable force that he used to be.

In some ways now, Arenas is a walking, nonstop-talking paradox. In certain situations around his teammates, he bubbles with a dominant personality and practically oozes confidence out of his every pore. But his transition to the Magic following the blockbuster trade for Rashard Lewis on Dec. 18 hasn’t been an easy one for him, often sapping him of his confidence and aggression on the court. Admittedly, he’s too often played to not make errors rather than playing to make big things happen for the Magic.

``I catch myself lately instead of going out and being aggressive I’m really passive and not wanting to make mistakes,’’ Arenas said after Orlando’s 125-124 loss to Oklahoma City on Thursday night. ``In the first half (when he had nine points and four assists) I didn’t worry about making mistakes and I just went out and played. But in the second half (when he missed both of his shots and went scoreless) I slowed it down to stay away from mistakes.

``You just don’t want to be that sore thumb out there sticking out,’’ continued Arenas, who admitted that his arthritic left knee has bothered him some at late. ``But my aggressiveness will come later on in the season. I’m just trying to get comfortable with everybody and fit in as best I can.’’

That’s all well and good, but Orlando (25-14) needs to see more flashes of greatness from Arenas as both a scorer and passer if it is going to truly compete for a championship at the level of the Lakers and Celtics.

The Magic certainly took a risk trading for Arenas, feeling the point guard still had plenty left in his surgically repaired knee and his mercurial psyche to justify the $62 million he’s still owed after this season. The hope is that he can recapture the Magic from 2005, ’06 and ’07 when he was an All-NBA selection. Knee injuries robbed him of 149 games in 2007-08 and ’08-09, and more lingering pain and a 50-game suspension for bringing a firearm into the Washington Wizards locker room sabotaged last season as well.

Magic President of Basketball Operations Otis Smith said that Arenas, a close friend of his for the past 10 years, is still adapting to head coach Stan Van Gundy’s heavily structured system. Van Gundy, never one much for patience, pleaded recently for Arenas to be given more time to get adjusted to the Magic’s players and system. Van Gundy related the point guard joining the team midseason to a football quarterback trying to learn a new passing system on the fly. That, Van Gundy said, is more of the reason behind Arenas averaging only 9.5 points on 37 percent shooting in 13 games with the Magic.

``He’s been struggling a little bit and has been up and down,’’ said Van Gundy, whose Magic play next in Minnesota on Saturday night. ``The adjustments he’s had to make are the most severe (of the four players traded to the Magic in December). With Gilbert he’s coming off the bench and he’s playing point guard again, which he wasn’t doing as much in Washington with (John) Wall and (Kirk) Hinrich. And that’s the toughest position to play with a new team.

``So Gilbert’s adjustments and challenges have been far greater than that of Jason (Richardson) or (Hedo Turkoglu),’’ Van Gundy continued. ``Everybody has got to have some patience with him because it might just take a little longer.’’

Smith, a mentor and support of Arenas, has told him all he’s looking for is flashes of greatness from him as long as he is improving and getting himself for the playoff wars that await in April, May and June. Those positive flashes have come in games against San Antonio (14 points, nine assists) and Cleveland (22 points, 11 assists), but then there have been times where Arenas has chosen to blend rather than attack.

That has caught the attention of Magic superstar center Dwight Howard, who has pushed the point guard to come into game with more of a take-no-prisoners mentality. But Howard is aware that Arenas’ game has changed dramatically over the past three seasons when he’s been mostly inactive. Howard knows that Arenas’ adjustment to Orlando, as well as to being back in a primary role, is a work in progress. But Howard has made it clear that Arenas can’t just try to fit in on this Magic team. Because he has to shoulder so much of the load, Howard is looking for help in the form a dominant and dazzling Arenas.

``I just need him to play and not focusing on fitting in, but doing what it takes to help our team to get better. He’s really just trying to get back used to playing after what he’s been through the last couple of years and we understand that,’’ Howard said. ``For us to be successful we need him and he knows that. He’s not really used to the way that we play and we can see that. We haven’t even been playing a month together, so it will come and we’ll learn each others’ games.’’

Much to his credit, Arenas has taken a team-first mentality. He brought energy and smiles to the Magic practice sessions with his driving the reserves – affectionately dubbed ``The Bench Mob’’ – to push the starters. And he’s used his effervescent personality to engage each player to try and learn their likes and dislikes on the fly.

But eventually Arenas knows it will be on him to try and turn back the clock to those good ol’ days and take over games once again.

``As aggressive as I used to be I really want to learn how everybody plays first before I start trying to find my own rhythm,’’ Arenas said. ``I was asking J.J. (Redick) the other night what plays he likes. He said, `If you are trying to get me the ball, call this play.’ Me figuring out how to get Ryan (Anderson) and other people the ball, it’s an adjustment for me.

``It’s easier for Turk because he already knows the offense and J-Rich because he’s just a shooter and he comes in and shoots the ball,’’ Arenas continued. ``But when you are a point guard you got to actually run the team and get yourself involved. But it’s not as hard as it seems because my only mindset when I come in is to push it and get shooters the ball. It will come for me, I know it and I’ll be attacking like my old self again.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com. Submit a question to John for his mailbag segment at AskJD@orlandomagic.com.