Deducing Arenas's Value Requires More Than Math

By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Statement 1: Gilbert Arenas is a shoot-first point guard with a juvenile streak and two surgical cuts on his knee, and the Washington Wizards are just as good without him.

Statement 2: Gilbert Arenas is a score-at-will player and an irreplaceable crowd pleaser, and losing him would be a major blow to franchise's fortunes, and popularity.

The tension between those two declarations will make for drama all summer, as Arenas explores his value in free agency. Determining his worth won't be a simple exercise, but he is not a simple person. How much should a team pay, for instance, for personal charm?

The thing that's always been likable about Arenas is that he doesn't behave as if it's a hopeless burden to be him. Rather, it's something like a Mardi Gras, an endless parade of fun. The man has levity even in this free agency business, which he is treating with the preening expectation of a prom date awaiting her wrist corsage. Yesterday, Arenas reiterated that he intends to opt out of the final year of a contract with the Wizards that would pay him $12.8 million. But he also said he'll wait until the June 30 deadline to file the paperwork with the NBA, which means it's going to be a long, flirtatious offseason, as he tries to extract a maximum-level contract; something in the neighborhood of $100 million over six years is what he would like, please.

He plans to represent himself in negotiations, which merely suggests the confidence he has in himself, and his ability to be both smart and winsome in dealing with Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld. "I'm not opting out to leave, I'm opting out to sign," he has said, as if that isn't a sly maneuver to have it both ways.

Arenas is not a traditional point guard, and clearly, this won't be a traditional negotiation. The person who can accurately define Arenas's value wins a free prize. How do you put a price on such a player? How do you appraise Arenas as an asset, versus his cost, his high maintenance, and in the matter of his knee, a certain amount of depreciation?

First, let's consider the minuses. There is a seemingly compelling case to be made -- and some fans are making it -- that the Wizards don't need Arenas. When he was healthy and started 70-plus games in 2006-07, they went 41-41. This season they went 43-39, despite the fact that he made just 13 starts on his bad knee. There was a negligible difference in the team's shooting percentage, which hovered right around 45 percent during both seasons, or assists, averaging 19.6 per game this season, versus 20.2 in 2006-07. (Both seasons ended in first-round playoff losses.)

Moreover, they were better defensively, appeared to move the ball more, and generally seemed more focused when Arenas didn't play. Why, his critics argue, should the Wizards make a long-term commitment to a point guard who can be selfish and disruptive, has yet to demonstrate leadership, and doesn't defend?

Now for the plus side. If healthy, Arenas is a legit most valuable player candidate who can reduce arenas to stunned silence. With him on the floor, the Wizards are patently a more dangerous, up-tempo team that scores six more points per game than they do without him. In February 2007, he led them to the best record in the Eastern Conference. He was a dagger-plunger who, in addition to averaging 30 points a night, dropped 60 points on Los Angeles and 54 on Phoenix. He won no fewer than four games single-handedly with buzzer beaters, and everyone in the arena knew he was going to take the shot but still couldn't stop him. Against Utah, with the game tied in the final seconds, when his teammates started talking about overtime, Arenas replied, "I don't do overtime."

Growth potential is another factor in determining market price, and Arenas is still a relatively young man on a team of other young men, who are building a nice chemistry together. Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood played the best basketball of their careers to produce a 43-win season, and it's a fallacy that those performances somehow came because of Arenas's absence. If that trio managed to keep the Wizards above .500, what might they do with Arenas, if he shows the same work ethic he always has, and continues to improve as his teammates have in the space of a year?

Finally, even the most rigid businesses recognize goodwill as an asset. Arenas is a difference maker at the gate and in TV ratings: Attendance and viewership both fell when he was sidelined. Yes, he can talk like a sober drunk, and his look-at-me stunts and riffs are at times a distraction to his team. But he merely craves attention, not notoriety. And unlike a lot of guys, he knows the difference between the two.

He is as charitable as a Rockefeller, unfailingly kind to his fans and has a quality you almost never find in a professional athlete anymore: He's playful.

More than anything, Arenas makes people care about the Wizards. It's June, and because of him, they're topical. He has people talking about them, and thinking about them. When it comes to drawing attention, he is virtually peerless. Anyone who questions his worth should consider what a void there would be without him.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company