LOS ANGELES – Nick Young turned, fired and watched his shot clang off the side of the rim and into the hands of Luke Walton. That’s the first reason why the Washington Wizards should hope Gilbert Arenas returns in time for the playoffs.
On Sunday night, with the clock ticking down and the game on the line, the Wizards put the ball in the hands of a rookie. Had Arenas been on the floor? As Agent Zero politely explained before tipoff: “Hit game-winning shots? That’s what I do.”
The Wizards have another incentive to hope Arenas soon trades in his sweater vest for No. 0. Antonio Daniels, who has been starting in Arenas’ place, left after four minutes with a sprained wrist. Such injuries typically make it difficult to shoot, pass, dribble or blog.
Arenas is already blogging pain-free, as well as running. But he’s also still waiting for Washington’s doctors to clear him to play. He sat out his 65th consecutive game on Sunday, and the Wizards lost 126-120 to the Los Angeles Lakers in overtime.
Isn’t that one more reason for the Wizards to pine for his return?
Or cause for them not to?
The Wizards played Sunday like they’ve learned to survive without Arenas. Caron Butler had the third triple-double of his career. DeShawn Stevenson matched a franchise record with eight three-pointers. Young, the 22-year-old rookie from USC, went for a career-best 27 points in front of his family and friends.
The Wizards lost, but they erased a 17-point deficit then rallied again from nine down with less than six minutes left to force OT. Two nights earlier, they won in Sacramento after trailing by 16. Two nights before that, they came back from 17 down to win in Seattle. Even after Sunday’s loss, Washington trails Cleveland by only 2½ games for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
“We’ve always felt we have enough to get it done,” Wizards forward Antawn Jamison said.
Arenas naturally found a way to make headlines without ever pulling on his jersey. Before the game he announced he’s still planning to opt out of the final year of his contract this summer.
To take a pay cut.
Jamison will be a free agent this summer, and while Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said earlier this week that the franchise plans to re-sign both players once they hit the market, owner Abe Pollin wants to avoid paying the luxury tax. Arenas has already come up with a solution.
“Sign Antawn first,” he said. “Then I’ll take a pay cut to keep the team intact.”
Take a pay cut?
“Depends on how much he wants.”
“Typical Gilbert,” Jamison said when told of Arenas’ plans. “He wants to make sure we keep everybody together and he’s letting everybody know he’s willing to make a sacrifice to do that.”
In truth, Arenas will have a hard time finding someone to pay him more than the $12.8 million he’s due to make under his current contract. He missed the final few weeks of last season, as well as the playoffs, after needing surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee. He lasted only eight games this season before undergoing two more procedures on the same knee, including one of the dreaded microfracture variety.
There aren’t going to be many teams this summer capable of clearing that kind of salary-cap room, and even fewer who would want to spend it on a player who has yet to demonstrate he’s regained his All-Star form. Not that that worries Arenas.
“At the end of the day, once the summer comes I’m going to be healthy,” he said. “That’s the most important part. Next season. Being healthy right now means nothing. It’s like running a sprint. A race is longevity. I don’t just want to run sprints. I want to run miles.”
For now, Arenas would be happy enough to go up and down the court a few times during a game. He’s still miffed Washington’s doctors didn’t clear him to play last Sunday against Detroit. He will be re-evaluated when the team returns home after Monday’s visit to Utah, but that will leave just eight games before the playoffs begin. He thinks he needs more than twice that to settle into a flow.
“If they do clear me, I don’t know what they expect from me,” Arenas said. “I’m not in real basketball shape. I don’t have no rhythm to the game.”
That’s the way it’s gone with Arenas. He says he wants to play, but he also sounds like he doesn’t know whether that’s a wise decision.
“I know how to score. I know how to get points. I know how to get fouled,” he said. “I know I can contribute. It’s just in 20 minutes can I do all that and still impact the game? That’s the big concern for my part. Or do I just sit and let the team go in there against the Eastern Conference on their own?”
The Wizards have certainly held their own without him. Few, if any, teams have proven more resilient this season. In addition to losing Arenas, Washington has been without center Etan Thomas all season after he underwent heart surgery in training camp. Butler also missed 20 games, including a month-long stretch that contributed to the team weathering an eight-game losing streak.
“If Gilbert and Caron were healthy, I don’t think Nick has the confidence to come in and play that way,” Jamison said. “It’s been difficult, but some bright spots have emerged with us going through this difficult time.”
Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, who has admirably helped keep the team afloat as he continues to plug holes in his rotation, wouldn’t even speculate on Arenas’ possible return. To do so, he said, is “just going to be more of a distraction, in my mind.”
The Wizards, however, have long grown accustomed to Arenas’ eccentricities. Just last week they watched him throw his clothes out of his locker and bolt out of the arena after the doctors wouldn’t clear him to play. Arenas sped home, but was back on the bench by the start of the second quarter. Two days later, he detailed the depth of his frustration on his NBA.com blog.
“It was just me and my car…speeding – something that I shouldn’t be doing. Then I got that thought that I know everybody gets once in a while. I was like, ‘You know, what if I just ran my car into this pole right here?’
“I don’t know why I thought that, but I kept going with it.
“Then I can jump off the road into this lake and just swim…or drown. Whichever one comes first.”
“Every once in a while you have to put him in the closet and slash the belt across him a couple of times,” Jamison said. “But he’s one of those guys who’s very entertaining to play with and entertaining to be around. Nothing really surprises us anymore as far as whatever goes on with the blog or what he does off the court.”
The question now is whether Arenas will get an opportunity to do anything on it. On Sunday, he cheered from the bench as Butler threw in a late three-pointer to send the game into OT.
“We’re going to be a team to be reckoned with come playoff time,” Butler would later say.
With Agent Zero?