The NBA's most influential: Gilbert Arenas, #10

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Greetings and welcome to the “NBA’s most influential,” a list of the 10 players who will/could have the greatest impact on the league next season. To be clear: this is not a list of projected MVP candidates, or who this author thinks will be the 10 best players in the league next season. It is simply a list of the 10 players who, based on their game, their importance to their team, and their importance to the rest of the league, will have the greatest impact on the league next season whether they succeed or fail. Without further ado, here’s Gilbert Arenas.
From the beginning of the 04-05 season to the end of the 06-07 season, Gilbert Arenas was one of the best guards/pure scorers in the league. He averaged 25.5, 29.3, and 28.4 points per game during those three seasons, and missed a total of 12 games over that three-year stretch. Few, if any, players could match Gilbert’s combination of three-point range, an explosive first step, passing ability, and the strength to finish at the rim any time he got his shoulder inside of his defender.
Allen Iverson succeeded by putting his defender on a string, fooling his defender into giving him a lane to the rim, and hitting a quick-release mid-range jumper whenever he was given room; Gilbert was Iverson 2.0, a combo guard with the athleticism and raw strength to bully his way to the rim or the free throw line and the ability to rain threes on any defense that sagged off of him. (And Gilbert, of course, had the swagger to match his skills.)
That was then; this is now. Thanks to injuries and a firearm suspension, Arenas has only played 47 total games in the past three seasons, and his combined FG% in those three seasons is only 40%. 
Here’s the thing: Arenas still has more than enough talent to be an impact player. The arrival of John Wall will likely force Arenas to play the two next season, but Agent Zero has the ability to make an Arenas/Wall backcourt absolutely deadly. Flip Saunders has said that Arenas will spot up more this season, and he has the ability to punish any team that leaves him alone beyond the three-point arc. His knee injuries have taken a good bit of his explosiveness from him, but Arenas was never an above-the-rim player; his greatest talent as a driver was always his strength and ability to keep any defender on his shoulder once he got by him, forcing him to either concede the layup or give a foul — even if Arenas’ first step isn’t what it once was, he can still burn any team that gives him anything resembling a lane to drive through. 
Make no mistake: if Arenas can deal with the fact that he isn’t a 28 PPG scorer anymore and if his knees aren’t completely destroyed, he could absolutely turn himself into one of the best offensive two-guards in the league. Whether Arenas can accept his new role or not will be a key factor in Washington’s success or failure next season.
The Wizards could be very, very good next season. They could also be very, very bad. I don’t want to make a hard-and-fast prediction about that team, because they really have no floor or ceiling; it’s hard to name a team with more extremely talented and extremely flawed players. 
John Wall may be the best perimeter prospect to enter the league since LeBron; he’s also a rookie with limited three-point range, questions surrounding his ability to be a pure point guard, and an aversion to driving to his right. JaVale McGee is a true 7+ foot center with crazy athleticism, a Mr. Fantastic wingspan, and surprising skills for a man his size — seriously, he’s just as comfortable stepping around the help-side defender and converting a Giant Gervin finger roll as he is putting home an easy alley-oop. He’s also a center who’s never shot 51% from the field and has always seemed all to content to let his man get by him for an easy layup. 
Andray Blatche has true power forward size, small forward skills, and put up absolute monster numbers after Antawn Jamison was traded away last season, but he does tend to float in and out of games, especially on defense. Josh Howard and Al Thornton are talented scorers with superb mid-range games who have all but been given up on at this point in their careers. Kirk Hinrich was thought of as one of the most complete two-way combo guards in the league before he mysteriously became “Zombie Hinrich” and averaged less PPG in his last three seasons than he did in any of his first four seasons. Heck, even Nick Young and Yi Jianlian have shown flashes of greatness throughout their disappointing careers, and the latter has supposedly found his game this summer while working with renowned coach David Thorpe. In short, this is an extremely talented team with exactly 0 sure things on its roster.
Exactly how good or bad the Wizards will be next season may hinge on the John Wall effect. The Wizards have a roster filled with extremely talented players with glaring weaknesses; great point guards highlight the strengths of their teammates whilst hiding their weaknesses. Wall hasn’t played a minute of NBA basketball yet, but from what I saw in Las Vegas, the kid is for real. He gets into the paint at will, can hit the mid-range jumper if he’s given space, and, most importantly, knows how to set up his teammates when the defenses collapse on him. 
I’ve seen JaVale McGee hang out on the perimeter and try to be a 7-2 shooting guard during both NBA and Summer League play for who knows how long; in Vegas, when McGee was working off of Wall’s penetration, he was throwing down Alley-oops and catch-and-dunk opportunities with reckless abandon, and looked like a completely different player. Wall’s summer-league teammates were also the recipients of countless open looks from beyond the arc and open lanes to drive through thanks to Wall’s penetration and savvy dimes. It was only Summer League, but Wall showed that he wants to be far more than an athlete/scorer; he wants to be the next great point guard in this league.
All of this brings us back to Arenas. If Arenas accepts that Wall is going to be the one making everything go in Washington, he could absolutely experience a career renaissance — getting easy looks from beyond the arc, working drives on defenses tilted towards Wall’s side of the floor, or setting Wall and everybody else up with passes for easy finishes. If Arenas reverts to his old habits and (as he is occasionally wont to do) stops the ball and tries to relive his 28 PPG glory days on a bad knee, he may become an albatross for Washington, tempt his talented teammates to try and get theirs instead of playing a team game, and ultimately end up holding the New Wizards back instead of getting them back into contention. 
There’s also the matter of Gilbert’s off-court persona to consider. Before Twitter caught on and players regularly blogged, Arenas gained attention for his blog on NBA.com (ghostwritten for him by former NBA.com and current ESPN Los Angeles employee Dave McMenamin), which was funny, revealing, honest, and often charmingly insane. 
The blog was influential enough for former Deadspin.com editor Will Leitch to write an essay about Arenas entitled “Why Gilbert Arenas Matters More
Than LeBron James” in his excellent 2008 book, God Save the Fan
In the essay, Leitch praises Arenas’ accessibility; when approached by a fan at a bowling alley, Arenas invited the fan to join his game, hung out with him for hours, and then played video games with said fan all night. He also sponsored a professional Halo team, tried to vote himself into the All-Star game, talked about taking a shower in his full uniform, embraced the “Agent Zero” given to him by Wizznutzz.com, and admitted to dropping his daughter, “butt-first,” on his blog. By being so down-to-Earth and accessible, Leitch argued, not incorrectly, that Arenas was a new model of athlete, one who made LeBron’s reliance on corporate-friendly and team-first platitudes seem outdated and insincere. (Stop me if any of this sounds familiar to you.) 
Since 2008, Gilbert’s relationship with the media has changed. When twitter exploded, Arenas was no longer the athlete darling of Web 2.0; an Arenas blog post would probably be the 10th-craziest NBA player admission/statement of the day if it happened today. (Arenas briefly flirted with Twitter, saying he’d start tweeting when he got 1,000,000 followers; he never came close to getting that many followers.) 
Then, of course, there was the gun thing. An NBA player who developed a cult of personality for acting goofy and occasionally stupid got suspended for a full season for acting goofy and extremely stupid. It was one of those events that makes you consider just how athletes should be covered in 2010. 
The sports media (which I am, of course, a member of) will always try to separate athletes into Good Guys and Bad Guys, and Web 2.0 has often helped them do that. But an endearing web presence like Arenas getting suspended for a full season for bringing guns into a locker room highlights the fact that as athletes gain more and more control over their public image, they become less and less like characters in a narrative and more like human beings. The same Gilbert Arenas that invited a bowling buddy to play video games with him all night brought guns into the locker room because of a gambling dispute. 
In his Arenas essay, Leitch says the following about the contrast between Arenas and LeBron/Michael Jordan:
[An athlete] just has to be himself, an original thinker, someone who we feel is being straight with us. Michael Jordan never was this, and LeBron James never will be. We see through it now. We don’t believe him.
So, should we believe Arenas? Are we willing to accept his flaws, which are serious, and embrace the man that’s entertained us both on the court and off as a performer, Kanye-twitter style? Should we all go see Catfish and realize (spoiler alert, kinda) that being “you” on the internet is often just a way to market yourself rather than a true window into the soul? Or should we just worry about whether Gilbert will embrace playing off the ball alongside John Wall next season? 
All of these are valid questions Arenas raises, and ones we’re still looking for answers to in the thick of the Web 2.0 phenomenon and the dawn of the John Wall era.

Nets waive Yogi Ferrell, sign Spencer Dinwiddie

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 13: Spencer Dinwiddie #8 of the Detroit Pistons in action against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on April 13, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Pistons defeated Cleveland 112-110 in overtime.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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Brooklyn has decided to try something different to provide depth at the guard spot.

They had brought undrafted Yogi Ferrell back for depth after Jeremy Lin went down (Ferrell had been the final cut of camp). The Indiana product got in 10 games for the Nets and averaged 5.4 points a game when he did, but he was clearly a project.

Thursday the Nets waived Ferrell and signed Spencer Dinwiddie to replace him. This was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports, and since confirmed by the team.

Dinwiddie has bounced between the NBA and D-League for three years. This season he was playing for the Bulls’ D-League affiliate and averaged 19.4 points, 8.1 assists, and 3.7 rebounds a game, through nine games.

Dinwiddie has a solid all-around game and could be an NBA reserve, but has always struggled with his shot at the NBA level, which has made him defendable and held him back. If he found his shot the Nets have upgraded. They feel it’s worth a shot.

NBA’s new Larry Bird highlight video will blow your mind

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Larry Bird’s birthday was yesterday, and we celebrated with a couple highlight videos.

Then, the NBA released this video today – and it’s to good not to share.

It’s one thing to know Bird’s numbers. It’s another to see how spectacular of a scorer, passer and trash-talker he was.

Carmelo Anthony doesn’t want to talk about Phil Jackson’s ball-hogging critique (video)

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Phil Jackson bothered Carmelo Anthony with his use of the word “posse” last month.

How is the Knicks president agitating the Knicks’ biggest star this month?

Publicly criticizing Anthony’s playing style.

Jackson on CBS Sports Network’s We Need To Talk, via James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

“He can play that role that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant played,” Jackson said. “That’s a perfect spot for him, to be in that isolated position on the weak side. Because it’s an overload offense and there’s a weak-side man that always has an advantage if the ball is swung.

Carmelo, a lot of times, wants to hold the ball longer than — we have a rule, if you hold a pass two seconds, you benefit the defense. So he has a little bit of a tendency to hold the ball for three, four, five seconds, then everybody comes to a stop. That is one of the things we work with. But he has adjusted to it, he knows what it can do and he’s willing to see its success.”

Ian Begley of ESPN:

Anthony, who is normally affable with the media, maintained a smile but began to walk away from reporters when asked about Jackson’s comments before stopping and continuing with questions. He then responded to a query about the timing of the Knicks president’s remarks and whether they were productive.

“I don’t even know what was said, to be honest with you. I just don’t even want to talk about that, what he’s talking about exactly. I want to stay away from that at this point,” Anthony said. “My focus is my teammates and winning. We’ve been playing great basketball, and that’s the only thing I’m focused on. Whatever Phil said, he said it. I have nothing to say about that.”

Maybe Anthony was ruffled for a different reason. New York had just got beaten and embarrassed by the Cavaliers, after all. But it sure seems Jackson’s comments played a part.

Jackson should have known about Anthony before re-signing him to a huge contract two years ago. This is Anthony’s style and long has been. He’s a scorer who sometimes limits ball movement (to far better effect than most ball-stoppers).

As Jackson noted, Anthony has somewhat changed under the Knicks’ triangle offense. Anthony is even deferring more often to Kristaps Porzingis.

Could Anthony go further? Of course.

I’m just not sure public criticism is the way to increase Anthony’s progress.

Jackson has motivated players through the media for years, and sometimes it works. But given Jackson’s previous lack of direct communication with Anthony, this probably wasn’t the ideal method to use here.

Anthony deserves a team president who does more than hold triangle seminars, entertain coaching only home games and critique Anthony in the media.

Jimmy Butler’s ascent continues into superstardom

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 31:  Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls signals to his teammates against the Brooklyn Nets during the first half at Barclays Center on October 31, 2016 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Jimmy Butler was in Milwaukee and hundreds of miles from his home of Tomball, Texas. He was trying to fit in with his new Marquette teammates, most of whom he had never met before. He had to change his playing style as he transitioned up a level.

And then it snowed.

“Unbelievable to me,” Butler said. “I don’t know if I was happy or pissed off that it was snowing. I had never seen snow before. I was incredibly cold.

“That was the biggest culture shock of everything. It was hard. But we got through it. We always do.”

He always does.

The Bulls wing called going from junior college to the Big East the most difficult step in his basketball journey. What he’s doing this year, it’s not easy. But Butler has overcome numerous other challenges.

A rough childhood, getting overlooked in recruiting, rising from junior college to top-shelf college basketball, climbing draft boards as a relatively unheralded prospect, carving out a role in the NBA, working his way into stardom.

Now, Butler – the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2015 – is pushing himself into the NBA’s elite. He’s averaging 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds an 4.1 assists per game. He ranks third in real plus-minus, sixth in PER and fourth in win shares.

MVP? Another MIP?

Butler dismisses the “individual s—” with a grimace, but he’s taking to his elevated stature.

“I figured, ‘Why can’t I be up there with the best of them?'” Butler said. “And I continue to think that way.”

Butler didn’t always carry such confidence, and he doesn’t have to think far back to remember the days he lacked it. Jerel McNeal, Wesley Mathews, Lazar Hayward, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder overshadowed him at Marquette. Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer once dwarfed his presence on the Bulls.

“I wasn’t always a really good player,” Butler said. “I just worked harder than everybody. I just played harder than everybody.”

Butler developed his skills. He gained fame and fortune.

He just never lost his work ethic.

As he continue to practice and study, he learned how far that could take him. Butler has made the last two All-Star games and last three All-Defensive second teams. Now, he’s recognizing his own potential.

“Your confidence comes from your work,” Butler said.

That confidence is spreading.

Say whatever you want about how he has handled his rise into stardom, Butler continues to rise. He deserves more credit for his jump from star to superstar, maybe one of the most difficult leaps in sports. But his continued evolution has warped expectations.

Bulls teammate Dwyane Wade first noticed Butler at Marquette, their shared alma mater. Could Wade envision then Butler turning into an NBA player?

“That was hard to see,” Wade said.

What about once Butler got into the league? Did his star potential show?

“No, didn’t see that,” Wade said.

Then Butler’s leap to superstardom surely must have also caught Wade off guard, right?

“I won’t say surprise,” Wade said. “He’s playing with the talent he has.

“He’s not doing nothing overcomplicated. He’s not crossing people, making them fall. He’s not jumping over tall people. He’s playing his game. He’s getting to the basket, hitting the mid-range pullup, doing things like that.”

Unfortunately for Butler’s MVP chances, he’s doing it in a year so many other players are posting unworldly numbers. His combination of 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds an 4.1 assists per game have been matched over a full season just 56 times in the NBA’s 70-year history. Do that in the right year – especially with Butler’s efficiency: shooting 47.2% from the field, 35.1% on 3-pointers and 88.9% on free throws – and Butler walks away with MVP.

But this season, four players – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Butler – are on pace to hit that combination scoring/rebounding/passing combination, which would be a record. To win MVP, Butler must fend off those other three and Chris Paul and Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James and…

Still, Butler has a more realistic chance of making history given his humble entry into the NBA. The No. 30 pick in the 2011 draft, he could o become the highest finisher in MVP voting in his lifetime who was drafted so low. The current bar is seventh in MVP voting, done by both No. 35 pick Draymond Green and undrafted Ben Wallace.

Butler could also break records with his sustained improvement.

Several Most Improved Players – Ryan Anderson, Kevin Love, Monta Ellis,* Bobby Simmons, Zach Randolph, Gilbert Arenas, Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady and Rony Seikaly – received votes for the award after winning it. But none seriously contended for a repeat. The closest was 1990 winner Seikaly, who finished 12th in 1997 – with a single vote.

*Ellis received is the only player to receive MIP votes in multiple seasons after winning it. He won the award in 2007 and then made his way onto the ballot in 2008 and 2010.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged as a strong frontrunner for 2017 Most Improved player, but Butler belongs in the mix.

To cherry-pick one measure among the many that showcases Butler’s improvement, his PER has risen from 21.3 each of the last two season to 27.8 this year. Only Terry Rozier and Giannis Antetokounmpo have made bigger jumps from their previous career-high PER to a new career high this season (minimum: 200 minutes each season):

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Butler’s ascension has invited greater leadership responsibilities, an area that drew immense scrutiny last season.

Chicago traded Rose and watched Noah walk over the summer. Newcomers Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo declared the Bulls to be Butler’s team.

The pressure was on, and Butler appears to be delivering.

Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg, who drew public criticism from Butler last year, called him a “great leader.” Butler again asked Hoiberg to coach him harder before this season, and his teammates have noticed.

“Is he hard on himself? Is he hard on guys when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to? Yes. He’s supposed to be hard on them,” Wade said. “But I think he’s as advertised.”

That’s because Butler continues to show his genuineness.

“He has a little different personality,” Wade said. “You come in, and everybody talk about it. He’s in the locker room singing country music and all these songs that most people ain’t used to listening to.”

That’s Butler from Tomball, Texas.

He’s now on an effectively max contract, in commercials and headed toward an even higher level of stardom on the court.

Yet, he remains relentless in his approach.

“I’m about right now,” Butler said. “Every single day, what can I do right now to get better for tomorrow – and that’s not even promised. What can I do right now to finish out the day right?”