As established, we're dangerously close to the start of the NBA season, with all its drama storylines and sturm und drang and months of madness. To us, part of the beauty of the NBA is that its focus, while ultimately on the team, falls on the individual. The plight of one player becomes an epic tale in the shadow of Jordan; who is the real alpha dog? It's this source of expression and personal comedy/tragedy that makes the game so compelling. There's no where to hide out there.
No site captures this feel more than the great Free Darko, which we read like a doctor's chart every day during the NBA season. They understand the dichotomy between individual achievement and collective glory, and how those are not mutually exclusive. And they've got a way with letters too.
Therefore, we've asked them to look at the arcs of certain players going into this season, what 2006-07 means to them, their teams and their legacies. They'll be previewing a player a day, up to tipoff next Tuesday.
Today: Gilbert Arenas. Your author is Bethlehem Shoals. After the jump.
In '05-06, Gilbert Arenas was putting up a wondrous 28.2 points per game at the break, but failed to make the All-Star team. Indignant and emboldened, he got in on a technicality the week of, and then looked jittery and out of place the few times he touched the ball. He propelled his Washington Wizards to their second straight playoff visit, only to have LeBron's shadow bury this accomplishment. In a scorching six-game series, the Mad Cuban went blow-for-blow with The King, only to choke on a pair of late game free-throw misses so strange they were almost forgivable. Team USA? Came, saw, impressed, offended ... and was cast out under a cloud of right wing conspiracy. Revenge has been promised.
Arenas has claimed that he's not quirky, and no athlete today does as much to confuse — and charm — us fans as Agent Zero. Maybe there's a reasonable explanation for all of his legendary pranks and habits, and maybe the press has gone out of its way to paint this interesting guy as a nude maniac. But the bottom line is ... well, there is no such solid thing. How exactly do you make sense of the NBA's most eccentric figure asking a reporter what eccentric means? A borderline superstar so underrated he becomes a scrappy underdog? A reckless, streaky performer who logs endless hours in the gym? A shoot-first point guard who's virtually impossible to dislike? Calling anything "Zen-like" should be avoided at all costs, but at this point Arenas is more bottomless riddle than one-note lightweight.
The question lingers, though, if Gilly Gil can indeed raise up and hit that rich note required of true franchise gawdz. FreeDarko is all for the uniqueness, and certainly the NBA could use a few more full-fledged personalities like His Zeroness. Still, it's hard for a leader to rally others if his emotional logic makes sense only to him, or requires extensive rationalization. Even if he cedes the veteran wisdom responsibility to the distinguished Antawn Jamison, his cohorts still have to be able to trust his game, feel the power, if they're going to strap their fortunes up on top of his back. Arenas may not have as many flaws as Iverson, but the Answer sets a clear tone for others, while Arenas-as-motivation is like getting your Scripture through a translation engine.
Not surprisingly, it's anyone's guess what a "mature" Arenas would look like. While he's rarely given the same harsh treatment as some of his peers in combo-dom, his critics would probably suggest fewer shots, a move to the two, better discipline, and so on. I can't imagine Coach Jordan wouldn't like to have a little clearer idea of what Arenas is doing, thinking, or planning from second-to-second. And as a fan, I would like to see the guy find a middle-ground between good-natured insouciance and dead-eyed fury. The truth is, whatever Gilbert does, it won't resemble the usual clich s of "putting it all together" or "getting with the program." If Arenas can turn his unpredictability into flexibility, and the rest of the Wizards can undergo the counseling necessary to see things his way, the NBA's holy fool might be hailed as a visionary in a season or two.
Then again, it might be that, like Iverson, Arenas is an incandescent gamble that can only pay out so much. Stifling or grooming this cheery vortex might backfire; we might be forced to admit that Arenas is what he is, is what he is because of how he is, and will only go as far as that will take him. At this juncture the man is such a high-profile enigma — try wading through recent NBA coverage without bumping into a piece on him — that the world might not allow him to change. Especially if the shift is more subtle, come May, you still might be bombarded with Gilbertology 101 even if real observers can smell the difference. Dismal as all this sounds, it's the perception Arenas will be up against this coming season, as he tries to shed some of the same reputation that's now starting to make a household name out of him.