Gilbert Arenas still trying to find his identity in the Wizards' new offense

Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas is averaging 23.4 points per game, but also 4.4 turnovers this season.
Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas is averaging 23.4 points per game, but also 4.4 turnovers this season. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

Gilbert Arenas said he didn't want to be an entertainer anymore. Then he decided to reenlist his Agent Zero and Hibachi identities during the Washington Wizards' 106-103 loss to the Detroit Pistons on Saturday -- complete with his familiar palms up, hands-waving motion after a made basket.

"Everyone wants the fun guy back," Arenas said after the loss. "They feel with the fun guy, everyone gets to be looser."

Arenas, though, is having an especially tough time finding his identity as a point guard, which is one reason the Wizards (2-7) have an inconsistent offense, are on a six-game losing streak and have the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. Arenas has flourished as a scorer, making three all-star teams with his ability to erupt for large scoring outbursts, but admits he is struggling as the primary decision-maker under Coach Flip Saunders.

"I find myself doing more thinking than I am just reacting, off my instincts. Players in this league, they react," Arenas said. "I was a reactor. Now I find myself being a thinker. I'm sitting there concentrating on getting assists -- averaging eight assists, averaging nine assists -- because I want to be labeled a 'point guard.' You see the players out there, Chris Paul averaging 20 [points] and 10 [assists], and you know they consider him the best point guard. So you put that in your mind, like, 'Man, in this system I can average 20 and 10. Let me go average 20 and 10.' And then I catch myself trying to force it."

Arenas had a season-high 10 assists to go with 19 points on Saturday, but he had an uneven performance that influenced how the team played. After proclaiming before the game that he was back to being Agent Zero, Arenas took six shots in the first period, missed them all, and the Wizards fell behind by 13. Then, in the third period, Arenas scored eight points with three assists during a seven-minute stretch in which the Wizards scored 27 points, assisted on eight of their 10 field goals and turned an eight-point deficit into an eight-point lead. But he made just one field goal in the fourth quarter, hitting a three-pointer with 1.9 seconds left, after the Pistons had secured the victory.

DeShawn Stevenson had to complain to Arenas about taking just three shots in the final period. "He said: 'Before, this wouldn't have happened. You would have taken over the fourth quarter, even if you had to take every shot,' " said Arenas, who has played nine consecutive games for the first time in three seasons. "It's frustrating for me because I know I can take over in fourth quarters. But I don't want to take away from the team."

The transition from Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense to Saunders's point-guard-centered scheme has been difficult for Arenas, who is shooting just 40.9 percent and leads the league with 4.4 turnovers per game. "In Eddie's system, he just told me attack, attack, attack, 24-7," he said. "In this system, I have the ball so much, if I attack, attack, attack, you know, I'll sit around and score 60, I'd just be ball-hogging."

The Wizards rank 24th in scoring offense at 94.2 points per game and have reached triple digits just three times, which is even more puzzling considering that Saunders is thought to be one of the more innovative offensive coaches and the Wizards have historically been one of the league's highest scoring teams. "You don't want to be like it's no big deal," Mike Miller said of the Wizards' offensive struggles, "because it is a big deal."

Pistons guard Richard Hamilton played under Saunders for three seasons in Detroit and said "he has a great mind, offensively." But he added that Saunders's offense, which requires movement from all five players on the court, rather than a predictable two-man game, takes some time to understand. He said Saunders's offense requires the point guard to run the show and Chauncey Billups helped the team adjust. "We always depended on Chauncey," he said.

Asked about Arenas's understanding of the offense last week, Saunders said that Arenas "grasps it a little bit."

While the Wizards wait on Arenas to figure out how he wants to play -- and for Antawn Jamison to make his season debut against Cleveland on Wednesday -- Caron Butler continues to get lost on occasion. Butler made back-to-back jumpers midway through the fourth quarter against Detroit but didn't get any shots in the final four minutes, as the Wizards missed seven consecutive shots and committed four turnovers to allow the Pistons to snatch the victory.

"I've just got to make myself present a little bit more and be aggressive in this offense," said Butler, who is averaging just 16.8 points this season. "You can't panic with 70-something games left, but we're definitely searching. It's been a long season, and we've already been through that last year and we don't want that, so we'll figure it out."

Said Arenas: "It's only been nine games. We can fight ourselves out of this."

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