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Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Return of the Crazy One

Gilbert Arenas is back on a playoff contender, and I couldn't be happier for him.

It was almost a year ago to the day that Arenas was involved in the infamous locker room incident with Javaris Crittenton and a couple of guns. After his season-long suspension was made official last January 7, many were right to speculate that not only his season, but the 3-time all-star's career might be over. Arenas had missed most 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons due to an assortment of knee injuries, and this gun incident contrasted with his recently signed contract (six years, $111 million) made him persona non-grata with the Washington Wizards.

The Wizards finished 26-56 in 2009-10, selected point guard John Wall with the first overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, and set their sights on ridding themselves of the former "Agent Zero". Arenas meanwhile shut down his Twitter account (after unsuccessfully trying to bring levity to the gun incident), pretended to shoot his teammates during a pregame huddle, lost half a season's worth of paychecks, changed his number thrice over (from "0", to "6", and then to "9"), faked an injury to give preseason playing time to friend/teammate Nick Young, and watched as the NBA world wrote him off as either crazy, washed up, or both.

Ironically, Arenas' terrible contract may just have been his career's saving grace.

Arenas was traded yesterday to the Orlando Magic, for forward Rashard Lewis, arguably the only player in the NBA with a worse contract (six years, $118 million). The deal was the second of two trades made that day by Orlando GM Otis Smith, ultimately landing Arenas, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Earl Clark. Arenas, who was leading the last place Wizards in scoring (17.3 ppg), now finds himself 3 1/2 games out of first in the same Southeast Division.
Not only is he on a team with playoff aspirations, but Arenas is reunited with Smith (who was player developmental director with the Golden State Warriors in 2001 when they drafted Arenas) and Richardson (best friend of Arenas from those same Warriors days). Smith is best prepared of any GM in the NBA to handle Arenas' unique personality.
And that leads to my favorite part of the trade; a return to Arenas' quirkiness that has been on hiatus since his suspension. Before everyone got on their high horse about his bringing of guns to the locker room, he was by far the NBA's favorite resident goofball (he even blogged for the NBA's official website). Smith has shared the story of how when the Warriors drafted Arenas, he had to talk him out of buying piranhas. That's far from the craziest stories associated with Arenas. His "Gilbertology" is stuff of legend:
  • He's admitted to taking a "Number 2" in teammate Andray Blatche's shoes.
  • He yells, "Hibachi" after taking a shot.
  • He has a $100 million contract, yet drives a 1997 Chrysler Sebring daily.
  • On faking the injury: "I told Nick Young I'd sacrifice playing tonight so he can get some time in, because I know he's kind of frustrated he's not getting a chance to crack the three position."
  • He played online poker during halftime of games.
  • He reportedly showered in full uniform and shoes at halftime of a game against the San Antonio Spurs. He scored 24 points in the second half.

My hope is that we'll see a return to these sorts of stories, and more. Arenas is still young enough (28) to have some of his best play ahead of him. Even though Stan Van Gundy has promised Jameer Nelson the starting point guard spot (making Arenas the NBA's highest paid sixth man), Arenas will have on-court minutes with Dwight Howard; the first time in his career he will have ever played with an all-star big man.

Howard, who is also known for being an on-court comedian, may remind Arenas what playing in the NBA was like before things got all serious.

If so, the redemption stories should start up around March/April. If the Magic make it to the semis, or even the Eastern Conference Finals, it will have to do with in large part whatever contribution Arenas has yet to make. Many have made the comparisons to Michael Vick's NFL resurgence, but I liken this more to Ron Artest's NBA version. An eccentric personality engages in some horrific behavior, takes mandated time off, hooks up with a winning team, plays well, and reminds the general public why they liked him in the first place.

A familiar story, but a welcome one.

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