Can Gilbert Arenas Return to Form?

by 22. October 2010 10:51

Coming off an extremely tumultuous season both on and off the court, expectations are all over the map for Gilbert Arenas this year. Having played just 45 games in the past three seasons combined (with his production and efficiency numbers falling below his normal levels in all three), it’s been a long time since Arenas played at a star-caliber level. With Arenas already pronouncing his willingness to play second fiddle to John Wall this year (at least on the court), what exactly can we expect from Arenas this season?

The first thing that’s important to look at in assessing Arenas is determining what was responsible for his massive falloff in proficiency since the 06-07 season. While Arenas’ usage rate (31.4 in 06-07, 32.0 in 09-10) hasn’t changed much over time, his TS% has plummeted from a very strong 56.5% to a well below average 51.1%, a big problem for someone using as many possessions as he does. Age and injuries obviously play somewhat of a factor here, but at 28 years old, Arenas is hardly an old-timer.

Shot locations actually tell much of the story with Gilbert’s offensive decline, as his shot selection has shifted noticeably from higher to lower efficiency areas of the floor. In 06-07, Arenas averaged 5.0 FGA per game at the rim, down to 3.9 in 09-10. His FTA likewise dropped from 9.7 to 6.5 per game, while his 3FGA dropped from 7.9 to 5.7. On the other hand, in terms of all shots between the rim and the three-point arc, Arenas took an additional 1.9 shots of that variety per game in 09-10, converting on those shots at terrible efficiencies around 40% (compared to 50% and higher eFG% at the rim and behind the arc).

While a good deal of Arenas’ shift in shot selection can be attributed to him not having the same explosiveness he had earlier in his career, affecting his ability to get to the rim as effectively, the fall off in three-point attempts is largely a schematic result of Flip Saunders’ offensive scheme, which heavily emphasizes long two-pointers. The 06-07 Eddie Jordan-coached Wizards took one three-point attempt for every 1.28 attempts from the 16-23 foot range, while Saunders’ bunch took one for every 1.73, one of the lowest rates in the league.

Looking at how things could change for Arenas this season, shot selection will obviously play a large part, as adjusting back to taking more shots in higher efficiency zones like he did earlier in his career should drastically help his percentages, but there is another reason to be optimistic about his offensive performance.

Playing most of his career at either the point guard or combo guard position, Arenas hasn’t had the privilege of playing alongside many elite playmakers in the backcourt (Antonio Daniels, Steve Blake, and Larry Hughes top the list of his sidekicks), forcing him to create a very high percentage of his own shots. This season, however, he will be in a situation where he will spend almost all of his time with either Kirk Hinrich or John Wall on the floor, either of which would easily rank as the best point guard he’s ever played alongside. The Wizards are likely to even start the season playing with all three in the starting lineup given their rough outlook at the small forward position, which will be a drastic change in scenery for Arenas.

While playing with a three-guard lineup should pose a lot of problems defensively, it actually is likely to improve the Wizards’ offensive efficiency, as it will make for a deadly transition attack, will give the team a ton of shot-creating options, and should spread the floor offensively, assuming Saunders allows Hinrich and Arenas to take advantage of their three-point shooting abilities. From a statistical standpoint, this could be a major boon for Arenas, as he should get a lot more open looks, something that didn’t happen very frequently in 09-10 where he was assisted on just 24.9% of his FGM (compared to 35.5% in 06-07).

While the Wizards’ problems at small forward leave them little choice but to go this route with their rotation until Josh Howard returns, it also is the best idea for inflating Arenas’ trade value, as his efficiencies should rise substantially offensively, while there aren’t many reliable statistics that can be used to measure the trade off it will have defensively.

Looking at Arenas’ limited 4-game, 81-minute preseason sample, there is already some evidence of change as he converted on a strong 58.4% TS%, though his usage dropped substantially to 20.7% as a result of him playing alongside two other shot creators. Obviously these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt and a much clearer picture will be painted in the first few weeks of the regular season.

By being put in a situation where his backcourt-mates’ floor-spacing and shot-creating abilities are both drastically improved compared to what he played alongside last season, Arenas should be due for a resurgence this year regardless of whether he adjusts his game. If he can build on that by reverting to taking more high efficiency shots like he did earlier in his career, both in terms of shot location and in terms of not settling for off-balanced, contested jumpers, Arenas could increase his offensive effectiveness by leaps and bounds. Because his usage will decline given the Wizards’ new guard-heavy roster, he likely won’t put up gaudy points totals like he was previously known for, but he could make up for that by spiking his scoring efficiency upward, something that should help the Wizards both in the wins column and potentially on the trade market.

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