The NBA’s 30 best go-to players (#16: Gilbert Arenas)

10.06.09 9 years ago 20 Comments

Every NBA team has a go-to guy, and there’s really only room for one. And it’s not strictly who takes the last-second shot. It’s the guy who regularly gets the ball when things are getting tense in the fourth; the guy expected to calm things down when teammates are getting sloppy; the guy called upon to snuff out an opponent’s rally, or spark a rally of his own; the guy who’s not just supposed to make shots, but make the right decisions. Bottom line: Who do you want the offense to run through when everything is on the line? From #30 to #1 (one per team), these are the League’s best go-to guys…

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#16: GILBERT ARENAS, Wizards

The Mouth of the South(east) has been mostly muffled for the last two years, and was damn near silent in the summer before his latest anticipated return to the NBA.

Yes, Gilbert Arenas has had a comeback or two during this arduous period of chronic knee problems that began in 2007 and robbed him of his prime like Ali: There was an ill-advised return for the ’08 playoffs that may have done the Wizards more harm than good, and by the time Arenas made his two-game cameo last season, Washington was hopelessly lost in last place, making it seem like more of a glorified practice than an actual return.

This time, however, after a summer spent in Chicago with NBA trainer/guru Tim Grover, it really feels like Arenas is back — just like his old self, just like the Wizards wanted when they agreed to pay him $111 million over six years, just like gearing up to face Jerry Quarry in 1970. Let the people shout the comeback for him.

And in preparation for this one, Arenas hasn’t been the chatty media magnet he’s always been. Is this newfound MUTE button a sign of a renewed focus to reclaim his spot among the game’s royalty, or the result of a buried caution and (understandable) doubt?

If he is really back back, where does Arenas rank next to the League’s best go-to players? If the last two years never happened, you put Arenas in the Top-10, easily. That’s how good he was at his peak, before the surgeries. Now, all we know is that Arenas will have every chance in the world to reclaim his superstar status. New Wizards coach Flip Saunders has said he expects Arenas to have the ball some 80% of the time in Washington’s offense, and confirms he will be playing point guard in his system.

The Arenas you saw before the surgeries was the basketball purist’s nightmare of a point guard; although his assist numbers were always solid at five or six per game, he was seen as a guy only interested in scoring. After all, how else could a 6-3 guard with less-than-incredible athleticism score 28, 29, 30 points a game if he wasn’t simply jacking without forethought? But Arenas, at least, has always claimed he’s a team-first guy.

“It’s funny how the media makes me out to be selfish, but every player wants to play with me because I make them better,” Arenas defiantly told me in his Dime #44 cover story. “The way I play, I’m not a selfish player. I find opportunities to score. I know how to score. I know how to get fouled. I know how to use the clock. If there’s six minutes left and we’re in the penalty, I’m in attack mode; get those free throws up, stop the clock, that’s more possessions. So the day someone can answer that question for me — name one other star that scores 29 points and two other guys on his team score 20 (Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison) — tell ’em to come holla at me. Maybe then I’ll readjust my game.”

In his brief appearance last season, Arenas did seem to adjust, averaging 10 assists and 13 points in limited work. Or maybe he was just being passive on a shaky knee. If the Arenas who comes back later this month combines a distributor attitude with the same scoring ability — and more importantly, recognizes when to turn that switch on and off — he will be as deadly a go-to guy as D-Wade, Brandon Roy and any other dual threat.

Arenas can pick teams apart with long-range shots, knife into the lane for runners and layups, or get himself to the line if all else fails. As he exhibited in the previous quote, he is always thinking time and situation. And when that time is running down and everything rests in his hands, he is as calm as if it were still the first quarter, as cocky as any 100-millionaire should be.

But even if it does not rest within him, there will always be that bit of doubt living with us. Until Gilbert Arenas is actually back on the court being Gilbert Arenas, it’ll be impossible to shake the uncertainty. And even if his knee does hold up, has he lost anything mentally? How long has it been since Arenas was actually in a high-pressure scenario at the end of an NBA game? How long has it been since everyone was looking at him, waiting for him to deliver? How long has it been since he gave himself a good reason to believe he will not miss?

If the Arenas we see this season is closer to the vintage model, he belongs higher on this list. If he’s not, he maybe should be lower. For now, sticking him in the middle is the only logical place to go.

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17. Derrick Rose
18. Chris Bosh
19. Andre Iguodala
20. Tracy McGrady
21. Baron Davis
22. Michael Redd
23. Devin Harris
24. Kevin Martin
25. Al Jefferson
26. O.J. Mayo
27. Stephen Jackson
28. Nate Robinson
29. Boris Diaw
30. Rip Hamilton

* Follow Austin Burton on Twitter: @AustinatDIMEmag
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