By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
With only 13 games remaining in the regular season, Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas knows that his chances of making an impact this season are dwindling.
Arenas, who has missed 61 games this season recovering from surgery on his left knee, will be with the team as it opens a five-game road trip tonight at Portland, but the three-time all-star has not been cleared to play. He showed up at Verizon Center on Sunday evening expecting to make his return against the Detroit Pistons, but team doctor Marc Connell, who performed the surgery on Nov. 21, advised him that he needs to wait at least another week before testing the knee in a game.
The Wizards close the trip on Monday night at Utah and host Milwaukee two nights later.
"Even if I'm cleared next week, that's not enough games for me to get my swagger," Arenas said yesterday before the team boarded a flight to Portland. "Plus, I'm going to play [fewer] minutes. When I do get back, I'll be playing 20 minutes [a game]. That's not enough for me to be me. I need games under my belt."
Arenas expressed doubt about the latest timetable. "They're not going to clear me next week. They said that last week about this week," he said.
"I just don't know what is going to change a week from now," he said. "All I know is that I want to play. I want to be out there."
Arenas said he has gotten over a fear of playing again, but the team's medical staff seems less eager to put him back on the court.
On Sunday, Coach Eddie Jordan said he admired Arenas's desire to play. "He wants to play, and we all have to give him a lot of credit for wanting to play. Last week. This week. Tomorrow. He is not an NBA player who is sitting on his laurels waiting for July 1," he said.
Team president Ernie Grunfeld declined to elaborate on the injury, saying that Arenas was being evaluated by team doctors, and when he's cleared to play he will play. Team policy prohibits the team doctor from speaking to the media.
"After what happened to him [in November], there is no way they are going to let him rush back out there," said a league source who has followed the Arenas situation. "If he goes out there and gets hurt again, it's bad for everybody: the team, the player, everyone."
Complicating the issue is Arenas's stated desire to opt out of the final season of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent. He is looking to sign a maximum contract with the Wizards, who can offer a six-year contract worth more than $100 million.
Meanwhile, the Wizards are facing a crucial stretch that could determine where they play and which opponent they face in a first-round playoff series. The return of a healthy Arenas would provide a boost heading into the playoffs. However, it remains unclear whether that is going to happen this season.
Arenas originally injured the knee last April 4 when Charlotte's Gerald Wallace fell into the side of Arenas's leg after making a layup. Arenas underwent surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee the next morning and aggressively rehabilitated the knee over the summer. He started the first eight games but had the knee drained of excess fluid twice and consistently complained about soreness, stiffness and swelling in the knee.
Following a win at Minnesota on Nov. 16, a game in which Arenas finished with 27 points and eight assists and started to look like his old self, an MRI exam revealed a partial tear in the medial meniscus of the same knee, and during the Nov. 21 surgery Connell also performed a microfracture procedure to repair a non-weight bearing bone on the side of the knee.
Arenas took a more cautious approach to the second rehabilitation process but tentatively set March 2 as a possible return date. Now, three weeks later, he is eagerly awaiting clearance to play and fully expected to get that clearance on Sunday after going through the morning shoot-around.
The situation doesn't seem to have distracted Arenas's teammates, and they said they understand what he is going through.
"Everybody knows that Agent Zero loves the game of basketball, but he has to do what is best for him and right now, stepping on the court is not the best thing for him," said all-star forward Caron Butler, who has dealt with knee, back, hip and hand injuries the last three seasons.
"Once he gets cleared, they'll let him know when he's ready. Sometimes, your mind can play tricks on you and you can psych yourself into believing that you are ready to go out there. But doctors know best and they are not going to rush or get him out there until he's completely ready. I think he'll be ready in the next week or so and once he comes out there, we'll be whole and we can beat anybody."
If the postseason were to open today, the fifth-place Wizards would face the fourth-place Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round for a third straight season.
However, the situation remains fluid in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards (36-33) are only three games behind Cleveland. Overtaking the Cavaliers, who host New Orleans tomorrow night, would give the Wizards home-court advantage in the first round.
However, the Wizards hold only a one-game lead over the Philadelphia 76ers and a 1/2 -game lead over the Toronto Raptors.
"We know how quickly things can change," all-star forward Antawn Jamison said. "That's why every single win is so important. You want to put yourself in the best position possible."
Jordan is more focused on how his team is playing than he is on playoff positioning. Starting with a 110-106 overtime win at Toronto on March 7, the Wizards have won seven of nine games and beaten four playoff contenders with a combination of solid defense, offensive execution, improved bench play and the steady excellence of Jamison, who is averaging 25.2 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting 47.4 percent from the field in the last 10 games.
It also helps that Butler is starting to find a groove after missing 16 straight games with a left hip injury.
Since returning in a win over Cleveland on March 13, Butler is getting back into game condition and Jordan sees a direct correlation between Butler's improvement and the team's success.
The Wizards last played this well back in January, when thy won seven of nine games and beat the league-leading Boston Celtics twice. Sunday's victory improved the team to 20-12 with a starting lineup of Jamison, Butler, DeShawn Stevenson, Antonio Daniels and Brendan Haywood.
"It is [the best the team has played] because that was when we had Caron was healthy, we had our forwards on the floor, we had good, balanced scoring, we had good rebounding with Antawn and Caron and good assist-making with our guards," Jordan said. "So yeah, that's where we are right now. We've got that toughness that we missed from Caron. We missed him dearly. It's good to have him back. It took a couple of games for him to get his feet underneath him but he's getting there and we like to have that unit out there on the floor."