Dwight Howard has expressed his displeasure with the way the Orlando Magic used Gilbert Arenas last season. "I just felt like he didn’t get the opportunity to play his style but also play with me," Orlando's franchise cornerstone told Jorge Sierra of HoopsHype.com. "I think he needed to. I think he got a couple of opportunities to do it in the playoffs, but it was kind of too late."
Arenas, who finished no worse than seventh in the league in scoring for three straight seasons earlier in his career, arrived in Orlando via a trade with the Washington Wizards last December. Brought in to bolster Orlando's offense, he faltered, shooting 34.4 percent from the field while shooting more often, per minute, than every Magic player apart from Howard. Though he showed aptitude in pushing the pace in transition and running the high pick-and-roll, Arenas did precious little else well, committing too many turnovers and proving to be a liability on defense.
Yet perhaps he, more than any Magic player other than Howard, might be the key to Orlando's future, according to not a few analysts, as well as Magic fans who've tweeted me. Orlando's biggest issue going forward is its lack of dynamic perimeter scoring, which Arenas can provide in spurts if healthy. Indeed, in his last injury-free season, Arenas averaged 28.4 points, good for third in the league. That's the good news. The bad is that it was five years ago, in the 2006/07 campaign. That was the year, you may recall, wherein Darko Milicic was a rotation player for Orlando. Yup.
What are we to make of Howard's claims? And can Arenas return to a form approximating his former self?
First, we need to unpack what Howard means by "his style." Arenas' is to dominate the ball and try to break defenses down off the dribble, usually going toward the basket, potentially to draw fouls. He is what one might call a classic scoring point guard. When at his best, he doesn't even need the help of a screen to get to where he wants to go.
But the whole "dominate the ball" thing isn't part of coach Stan Van Gundy's offense, which instead preaches spacing and quick, smart ball movement to create open shots. The Magic haven't employed a player who so desperately needs the ball, as Arenas does, during Van Gundy's tenure. Moreover, Van Gundy's previous backup point guards tended to be game-manager types. He tasked Carlos Arroyo, Anthony Johnson, Jason Williams, and (briefly) Chris Duhon to run the offense, distribute, and shoot only when necessary. Keyon Dooling proved to be the exception, with Van Gundy using him as the go-to scorer for his second unit in 2007/08.
Of course, Otis Smith didn't trade for Arenas expecting him to play like Anthony Johnson. He traded for Arenas to play like Gilbert Arenas. Arenas tried to oblige--as I said, he shot more frequently on a per-minute basis than all Orlando players save for Howard--but only saw the court for 21.8 minutes per game, on average. Obviously, he played miserably, and perhaps that word works two ways: "miserably" as in "poorly," and "miserably" as in "sad."
It's possible for score-first point guards to thrive in reserve roles. Look at Louis Williams (13.7 points in 23.3 minutes) in Philadelphia, Leandro Barbosa (13.3 points in 24.1 minutes) in Toronto, or J.J. Barea (9.5 points in 20.6 minutes) in Dallas. The problem for Arenas is adjusting to that role. It's perfectly reasonable that he'd struggle to adapt. He'd come off the bench just 26 times in his nine seasons prior to the last one, and 17 of those were in his rookie year. Then, boom, he arrives in Orlando and comes off the bench 47 times out of 49.
There is something to be said about the difference between starting and coming off the bench. J.J. Redick, Arenas' teammate in the reserve backcourt, has commented on it as well. Starters tend to have more freedom: they usually play more total minutes, and play longer stints than their backups as well. Time is on their side, in multiple ways.
If Arenas' challenge is to adapt to playing fewer minutes, then Van Gundy's is to figure a way to maximize Arenas' skills. Good luck with that.
Arenas has never been a great outside shooter, so spotting up isn't something Van Gundy can count on him to do. And the three operations he's had on his left knee have robbed Arenas of the athleticism which made him a great finisher and foul-drawer. Despite that, I do believe he has to continue driving to the basket; those flat-footed long twos off the dribble are simply hopeless, and the fewer he takes, the better.
Nobody knows quite yet what Arenas is capable of, but if his last four seasons are any indication, it isn't much. Perhaps we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt. Between his injuries, legal issues, and personal problems, he's had to deal with a lot these last few years. I believe there's middle ground between Arenas and Van Gundy. If the two can strike a satisfactory balance, perhaps he can challenge Jameer Nelson for the starting point guard job, which is something Smith has said he'd like to see happen.
What we do know, however, is this: if those two don't meet each other halfway, somehow, and Arenas is again mired on the bench and/or playing ineffective ball next season, Orlando is in a heap of trouble. With no particularly enticing trade assets or salary-cap room, the Magic almost certainly have to improve their offense from within. A bounce-back season from Arenas is their last, best hope of that.
Having laid all that out, it'd be unfair not to mention that Orlando tends to play fairly well with Arenas on the court, and that he's a great passer. His biggest problems pertain to shooting percentage, shot-selection, and defense. The first two, one hopes, can be remedied. The last one, however, may not be, given his loss of athleticism. Even a full commitment on that end of the floor may not be enough to make him serviceable there.