It Might Not Hurt That Much

gilbert arenas - washington wizards
Every team in the NBA, and there are no exceptions, is going to suffer without its best player, whether we're talking about Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant or Arenas. But the Wizards have played pretty well without him recently. (Jonathan Newton - The Post)
By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Two years ago, even last year, losing Gilbert Arenas for three months would have been a season killer. The Washington Wizards were built around Arenas completely and perhaps to a fault. Though Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Larry Hughes all were accomplished players, the Wizards were dependent on Arenas, as most NBA teams are on their star player. And this latest knee surgery that will keep him out of the lineup for three months is, in the short term, an obvious setback.

But it shouldn't kill this season, not if the Wizards have any resourcefulness about them. If Arenas isn't out for the entire season, the Wizards actually can benefit during his absence.

Don't get me wrong, the Wizards will need Arenas for the stretch run and in the playoffs should they qualify. Just last week, at 0-5, I thought the Wizards were the biggest disappointment in the league. Now they are missing their best player. Every team in the NBA, and there are no exceptions, is going to suffer without its best player, whether we're talking about Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant or Arenas.

But they've played pretty well without him the last couple of games. The ball flow has been better, as has distribution of shots, as has spacing. Granted, the Hawks, Pacers, T-Wolves, Trail Blazers and Sixers are bottom feeders. But if the Wizards simply beat the stinky teams they're supposed to beat (like the Pacers in the opener), they'll be fine. And the Wizards have been in the process of developing a nice little group of players good enough to do something more than stand around and watch Arenas.

By the end of last season, more than a few players around the league thought Butler was the Wizards' best player and would say so. Butler isn't new to the scene anymore. He's an all-star, clearly the toughest player on the team. Antawn Jamison still can give you 20 points and 10 rebounds a game over a prolonged stretch.

Wizards fans weren't nearly as giddy as they should have been when Ernie Grunfeld drafted Nick Young in the first round in June, perhaps because they never saw him play at Southern Cal. I thought it was a fabulous selection because Young, at least in college, showed he could do one thing great: score. The kid can flat-out fill it up. And with Arenas deciding he wanted to test the free agent waters, why not take a kid you could groom to take up some of the scoring load if Arenas left? Suppose you wanted to consider a trade?

Coaches and former coaches will look at Young right now and tell you everything he can't do, like defend or handle the ball efficiently or make good decisions on the fly. All that's true. He's a rookie, not a franchise player. Nevertheless, he still can do the most important thing you can do on a basketball court: score. Okay, they're throwing him in the deep water earlier than they'd like because of this injury, but it's not like Young is coming from some Division II joint. He lit up the Pacific-10. The kid averaged only nine minutes a game through the first nine, which will need to slide up to, oh, 15 to 18 minutes a game. It's time to see what he can do.

And just when it's okay to start wondering when (if) Andray Blatche is going to arrive as a real player, it appears he's at least coming in on approach. That 12-for-14 shooting night against the 76ers couldn't have come at a better time. So many teams got stronger and more athletic over the last two seasons. Blatche and Brendan Haywood give the Wizards two 7-footers. And while I would have tried my best to get rid of Haywood over the summer, fact is he's played very, very well this season. He's been consistent on the boards and had some surprising scoring nights, averaging 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Plus, you've got two more veterans -- Antonio Daniels and Darius Songaila -- who know how to play, how to chip in, how to provide what's needed on a specific night. The Wizards still are eight deep -- Butler, Jamison, Blatche, Young, Haywood, Songaila, Daniels and DeShawn Stevenson -- in guys with good to very good talent. There's no reason they shouldn't beat the Knicks, Hawks, Pacers, 76ers, etc., without Arenas. The Wizards still have two all-stars in the starting lineup.

What they'll miss is Arenas's passion, his energy late in games, the attention he draws from opposing defenses that gives teammates relatively open looks at the basket. Still, if defenses try to double-team Butler, then Jamison, Blatche, Daniels and Young are good enough offensive players to make them pay.

I'm not about to suggest the Wizards will go on some long run now or be better without Arenas. But they can hold their own, and the team would be best served if this group of players learns how to win games and grind with tough opponents. Blatche and Young, specifically, will be presented with opportunities to show whether they're going to be big-time players in this league. This isn't like the playoff series against Cleveland last spring when Arenas and Butler were out.

The people who may miss Arenas the most are those of us who've become Arenas watchers, who read his blog and hang on everything he does simply because he's become the biggest athletic personality in town. Jason Campbell might play the most important position in sports for the most beloved team, but do you know the sound of his voice? What he's thinking? What he thinks of other teams, other players? His birthday?

I can't stand to have Gilbert essentially out of action until the all-star break because he spices up a vanilla sports town. You know how sorry Washington is as a sports town when people pay attention to Clinton Portis's costumes. Arenas is the guy around here worth paying good money to watch. Just last week, he blogged about not being up to his usual form, trying to come back from knee surgery.

"As bad as I've started off I'm still better than 97 percent of the players that are playing right now," Arenas wrote. "I think I got a new name. It's still 'Agent Zero,' but instead of Agent Zero with the Hibachi as an arm, it's Agent Zero with Nacho as an arm because I've serving chips and dips. . . . "

The best thing the Wizards can do for their sidelined star between now and February is learn how to play without him, to find it within themselves to play with his energy and a new efficiency. That way he can take his time rehabilitating and come back to a team at or right around .500 that can function better with him in the lineup than it did before he left it.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company