Ball Don't Lie - NBA

You can't knock people for thinking that the Washington Wizards are moving the ball more in Gilbert Arenas' absence. I spent a solid portion of Thursday afternoon worming my way through some basic per-game stats and going through game DVDs (one downside about finally having a job? These discs don't label themselves) assuming that "more ball movement, more assists" was the answer behind Washington's recent run. A bit of a problem, though: it ain't that easy. 

Superficially, the ‘Zards (I can call them that, right Jamie?) do appear to be moving the ball a bit more, mainly because the team is having to struggle to get shots off at times (especially when the defense focuses on their two high-usage players), and a host of desperate passes to open men are needed to save the possession. Throw in the absence of three or four of Arenas' patented "25-footers with 20-left on the shot clock" chucks, and you have all the appearances of a team that has found a five-man rhythm where a single extended solo would do.

But that isn't the biggest reason behind the turnaround. Washington has averaged 21.2 assists per game since Arenas took to the bench, but that's a pretty slim increase over the team's 2006-07 mark of 20.2 assists per game (you can't blame late-season injuries for that mark, the relatively healthy 2005-06 squad averaged 18.6 per game). As it usually is, the improved play isn't the result of a single, dominant force. Indulge me, because this site is free:

1). The Ewing Theory is absolute bollocks. Yes, teams like the Knicks or Patriots play better without a fading Patrick Ewing or limited Drew Bledsoe, but it's only because the superstar in-question's absence forces a coach to stop going with easy answers (dump the ball into Pat at all costs, stand around; let Drew drop into the pocket, watch him not move for eight seconds, and then throw the ball) and work to find easy scoring opportunities for the as-yet unheralded teammates. Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison have been All-Stars before, so they're hardly under-the-radar guys, but they can move and work without the ball and score efficiently. Without the hassle of having to tell his enigmatic superstar to stop dribbling and/or shooting incessantly from 25-feet away on the right elbow, Washington coach Eddie Jordan can actually run a pro offense with several options now.

2). Butler and Jamison are in their primes. Jamison is a little older than your typical "prime" player, but he's never played deep into the playoffs (second round sweeps don't count), saw his minutes limited initially in Golden State and during his one year with Dallas, and we're only a month into the season. Caron Butler is 27, he has all the shots he can handle, and he should be contributing this much. They're awesome, but they're expected-awesome.

3). DeShawn Stevenson can't shoot, but he can make threes. DeShawn, for years, was the master of (missing) the 20-foot jumper. The man refused to take a step back and take a three-pointer, and in spite of TV commentators that love to tell you that it's always nice to see a player take on a mid-range game, the 20-footer is a horrible shot that even the best of shooters can only make 40 percent of (that's four points in five possessions, and that stinks). It's not even a "mid-range" shot. Either way, for the last two seasons, Stevenson has seen his three-point touch come alive, and the Wizards are reaping the benefits.

4). Brendan Haywood is playing. We always knew that Haywood, also 28 and in his prime, could play. The problem was, did he feel like playing? This year, offering 10 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks in 26 minutes, he's putting it together while playing sound defense.

5). The defense. It's ... not amongst the league's worst. The Wizards are ranked in the upper 20s in defensive efficiency, which is still pretty bad, but an improvement on last year's mark of 28th. This, more than anything, is the likely cause of their recent run. It's pretty simple, the team is closing out on shooters, moving their feet on the interior and making an effort.

All this won't mean much beyond what we've already seen. The Wizards are a .500 team even with everything going right and Arenas on the bench, which is quite admirable, but little else. It's up to Jordan, really, to convince Gilbert that he's not 2001-era Allen Iverson, or 2006's version of Kobe Bryant's Lakers. He's a damn-good guard with solid teammates that he has to find a way to merge his talents with.

That Ewing Theory idea only works when coaches have the security enough to play Marcus Camby 35 minutes a night, or sit Bledsoe even when he's healthy in favor of a relative unknown. With Eddie Jordan and Washington GM Ernie Grunfeld already at odds, and Arenas' return (he says March, but we wouldn't be shocked if he took the rest of the season off with a knee injury that should be taken seriously) up in the air, it's anybody's guess as to how well this team does when or if Agent Zero returns.

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