For Better or Worse, Arenas Molds the Wizards in His Own Image

Dave SwensonContributor IApril 24, 2008

Understand that I love Gilbert Arenas.

He's fun to watch, incredibly talented, eccentric, and totally accessible—all big pluses in my book. The one minus, he is just not a team player; and unfortunately, to this point in the Wizards' playoff series against the Cavaliers, that minus has carried more weight than all of his pluses combined.

Again, it kills me to write this, but anyone who watches tape of the series thus far will surely agree that he has dominated the ball to the Wizards' detriment, starting in the final minutes of game one.

Fast forward to Wizards 84, Cavs 82. Washington has played a balanced floor-game and defended well, trademarks of the team's newly forged identity under captains Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. They are on their way to a late lead in the game.

But now, it's Arenas time. Gilbert wants to be the hero, wants this to be his team again. He is the offense now. A few drives into a packed lane, a few forced jumpers, and no points.  Oh, and no defense. Washington allows an 11-2 run by the Cavs in the final minutes to lose in gut-wrenching fashion.

Pop in the next tape from two days later. From opening tip to final buzzer, the game is exactly what Wizards executives quietly feared could happen upon Arenas' return from a 66-game absence: fruitless isolations, lackluster defense, and the abandonment of the Princeton system. The Wizards have once again taken on the personality of their former leader, and in the process, lose by 30.

The last few seasons, the Arenas-driven Wizards have been known for entertaining and moderately successful regular-season basketball, followed by playoff fizzling. It looks like they're headed that way this season as well.

Yet, I refuse to believe this series is over. Not by a long shot. When willing to play a complimentary role, Arenas' presence has not detracted from the offensive unselfishness and defensive grit that has marked the Wizards' play this season. At these times, he has played a deadly efficient brand of basketball that only adds an explosive element to the disciplined foundation the team has built without him.

If Gilbert can return to this mode, Washington becomes a truly dangerous team , capable of a long playoff-run, and in the minds of Wizards homers and the daring/slightly crazy, perhaps even a championship. Count me among them.

But it all has to start with Arenas. The man who has refused team captaincy in the past must again cede leadership to Butler and Jamison, and play the uber-sixth man if the Wizards are to avoid a third straight first-round defeat to the Cavaliers.  The Wizards can't do it without him.

But unless he has the right frame of mind, they can't do it with him either.