Used to be if you bought a ticket to see the 76ers play in Washington you bought it to see Allen Iverson. No Iverson equaled mass disappointment. But not now, not with the way the Washington Wizards are playing these days, and certainly not with the way Gilbert Arenas is playing. Iverson didn't play last night because a small tear was discovered in his shoulder, but it's not like there wasn't a lead guard, a youngster who should be an all-star, tearing up the joint in Iverson's absence.
Arenas's 33 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 3 steals made for another Wizards victory. Please, don't tell me about Iverson not playing when Larry Hughes is on the shelf for the Wizards. It's ironic that Hughes's busted thumb, the injury that will keep him out for another month or so, is what might just let Arenas slide into a spot in the All-Star Game. Either way, there's no asterisk next to Washington's 117-107 victory. They're 11 games over .500 (26-15) for the first time in 26 years. They're the most fun to watch this side of Phoenix.
And while there are plenty of players contributing, somebody has to lead the way and that somebody is Arenas. One year after appearing to be another young guard making a whole lot of mistakes while trying to find his way, Arenas has greatly reduced his eccentric ways of his first three years and has played just as well as Iverson and Dwyane Wade in the Eastern Conference.
Already he can look back and see a change. "Man, I didn't know nothing," Arenas said about his evolution as a player and as a person. "I was fighting. I was getting technical fouls. I was knocking people down. And the only thing I got for all of that was, 'Arenas, he's a hot head.' The thing is, I never got technical fouls in college. None. I never did that kind of stuff in high school. But when I was with the Warriors, half those guys didn't want to come to practice. Practice would begin at 11 a.m. and I'd see guys in their earrings and their jewelry and if we were lucky they might be ready to practice by 11:30.
"When I was in high school, we had the sorriest team in the world in terms of talent. But guys played their butts off every single night and we won 25 games."
But when Arenas got to the NBA, specifically to the sorry Warriors, he didn't see the passion he expected to see, that he felt he had to see. And being one of the youngest players in the league, at 20, he didn't quite know what to do about it. So he acted out. "I was making $300,000," he said, "and I told guys, 'Look, I can get fined all of it, I don't care.' And I probably got fined $150,000 and I didn't care.
"And then when I got here last year, Michael Jordan was gone and everybody's hopes were crushed. I got injured. It was really frustrating." And Arenas seemed destined for a career of knuckleheadedness, of undermining his own talent with just the kind of outbursts he described.
So what happened. "It's easy," Arenas said. "We got Samaki Walker, Anthony Peeler, Michael Ruffin and Antawn Jamison. I come to the gym early. Last year, I was the first guy there -- sometimes the only guy there for a while. This year, the veterans come to work. They've got energy every day. They don't take days off. If you see a 35-year-old guy [Peeler] going hard every day, there's no reason why guys in their twenties shouldn't do it. I had a real good feeling in training camp. From the very first game, when we went down to Memphis and beat a playoff team that won 50 games last year, I thought, 'This is a different team.' "
It's different largely because of him, because Arenas has had nine 30-point games this season, including last night's against Philadelphia at MCI Center. It's different because Arenas is averaging 26 points per game in the month of January, because he is ninth in the NBA in scoring even though he has to share the ball with Jamison and, until he was injured, Hughes. It's different because it's clear to everybody guarding him that there's no guard in the league, not even Iverson, not even Wade, who can stay in front of Arenas as he gets into the lane to break down opposing defenses.
Paul Silas, after Arenas torched the Cavaliers for 30 points in Washington's comeback victory in Cleveland, noticed the same thing Coach Eddie Jordan has seen. "He's unstoppable," Silas said, "because he has unlimited range on his jumper. Even when you have him under control in a half court set, he can still get around you. He goes to the hoop and he gets around his man every time. He puts all kinds of pressure on you. I'm really impressed with him and the way he's playing right now. He's just one of the best I've seen so far this year. He's more settled down. He knows what he wants to do out there and I think everyone is more comfortable with him, feeding off him and knowing what he's going to do, and that takes time."
The highest praise Arenas is likely to get this year came from his coach one hour before tipoff against the 76ers. "I trust him," Jordan said.
When Jordan was an assistant coach in New Jersey and Arenas was a rookie at Golden State, Jordan remembered seeing "the ball slip out of his hands unforced. He'd just lose it. He wasn't running the break, wasn't setting up his teammates. But now, he's done a 180-degree turn. His demeanor is great. He's quarterbacking the team. He's calling the plays. And while he can get better on defense he's playing a lot better defense. I don't know. I think a light switch just flipped on. Why, I don't know. Maybe part of it is his relationship with Antawn, who's a pro's pro. Maybe some of it is being more familiar with the coaching staff, and some of it is just growing older."
Of course, it's not like Arenas has done this on his own. Jamison is the consummate professional, willing to play out of position and take elbows to the face from behemoths and watch his own stats suffer because Kwame Brown is out. Juan Dixon has learned how to make himself invaluable coming off the bench. Peeler can fill in, especially on the road, and show what 13 years of NBA experience is worth. Jared Jeffries is willing to take on LeBron James one night defensively, and Jermaine O'Neal the next, though one is a playmaker and the other can set up in the low post. And while Brendan Haywood has some nights, against real quick players, where he has only one basket -- as was the case last night against Philly's Samuel Dalembert -- there are plenty when he gets between eight and 10 points and between eight and 12 rebounds.
But Arenas is the player opposing coaches and players are identifying as the one Wizards player they cannot solve, the player who in the fourth quarter especially is putting them away with shots, drives to the basket.
Not only did Arenas hit a 52-foot three-pointer to end the first quarter, but there was a stretch during the third quarter when he scored or assisted on 25 consecutive points.
The previous night, while Georgetown and St. John's played in the big room at MCI, Arenas was shooting in the Wizards' practice gym. He has been known to show up at 2 o'clock in the morning to shoot. He doesn't care about off days, about club life. "We're playing for respect," he said, "like when you're a kid watching the NBA and there's no money involved. It's like college. Do I care about making the all-star team? I do care. I do. But is it a big deal? No. We're doing something here that hasn't been done in a long time. We've set the bar pretty high, and that's a much bigger deal."