The Wizards are arguably a top 10 team in the NBA right now, and are arguably a much better team than they were during the Gilbert Arenas-Caron Butler-Antawn Jamison-era. One thing is for sure though: they have been more successful in the playoffs, nearly beating the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. However, the differences in team composition between the 2005-2006 Wizards and the 2013-2014 edition leave me wondering if the new Wizards are missing something that the old team had, something that would have won them the series.
I believe the answer is Gilbert Arenas. I know this sounds crazy. The 05-06 Wizards fell in the first round of the playoffs, losing an epic 6 game series against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. In a series in which three games were decided by one point, Agent Zero rose to absolute stardom by averaging 34 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals per game. In that series, Arenas posted better metrics than LeBron, averaging a better offensive and defensive rating (118/109 versus 113/111) as well as a 24.7 Game Score (a calculated number measuring a player’s productivity) to LeBron’s 23.6.
LeBron infamously approached Arenas at the end of Game 6 while Arenas was on the line, ready to shoot free throws that would have put the Wizards up 3 with just seconds left: “Miss these and you’re going home.” As Gilbert missed both free throws, the silence of what was the MCI Center echoed the beginning of the darkest moments in recent memory as a Wizards’ fan. Despite Washington’s hot start the next year, holding the second best record in the East at the All-Star break, Gilbert Arenas’s essentially career ending MCL injury derailed any hopes of making it through to the second round. Though he came back the next year, he was never the same, and the Wizards continued to struggle in the playoffs.
These struggles finally changed this past year. With an athletic, passing point guard in John Wall at the helm, the synergy of the new Wizards team was easily far stronger than it was with Arenas, a shoot-first point guard. With Wall distributing the ball to Beal, Ariza and an indomitable front court duo of Nene and Marcin Gortat, the Wizards had excellent team balance. A solid post presence, all the pieces needed for a fluid offense, and lots of athleticism gave the Wizards dominance over the flailing Bulls in round one this past season.
In the playoffs, however, offenses stagnate. The fluidity of the game decreases, and against an ironclad defensive team like Indiana, there were far too many possessions where Wall dribbled down most of the shot clock and passed into a contested three or drove and threw up a contested shot. Wall is the NBA’s premier athletic, pass-first point guard, but when the offense stagnates, his style of play hurts the team rather than driving it. Wall is still a growing jump shooter who often takes reckless layups, relying too often on his athleticism to create opportunities out of nothing. And although the Wizards also had the veteran Andre Miller on their roster, he is not the type of player to break open a tense game with explosive one on one plays.
Yes, the Wizards’ team play and defensive prowess were responsible for their victory over the Bulls and even some of their success against Indiana, but they were clearly missing the shot creating power of an isolation player, someone who can create his own shot when the shot clock is winding down. They were missing Gilbert Arenas.
Though the Wizards cannot bring back Agent Zero and his 28+ points per game, they did sign Paul Piece, a veteran
high usage player whose legacy in Boston is one of crunch time dominance. Pierce will not be the same player that he was for the Celtics, but even a watered-down version of vintage Pierce will bring the shot creating mindset that the Wizards so desperately need. And while my beloved Hibachi will never heat up again for the Wizards, perhaps The Truth can finally set the 2014-2015 Wizards free of their playoff woes.
Image Courtesy of Bleacher Report.
Georgetown University Class of 2018