The trouble with Gilbert Arenas.
Yet when they were on the court Sunday, it was hard to root against LeBron James and hard to root for Gilbert Arenas. A willingness to pass the ball isn't necessarily a sign of high moral character; it is a sign that you're aware of how to beat a trapping defense. It took Michael Jordan four tries to figure out that to beat the Pistons' pressure D (aka the "Jordan rules"), he needed to rely on his teammates to knock down open looks. LeBron, now in his fifth NBA season, hasn't had such a learning curve. Sure, he's happy to take the last shot himself. But he's also unafraid to swing the ball to his fellow Cavs, even when it's the playoffs, the clock is getting down to zero, and the guy who's open happens to be Damon Jones (who, thanks to a pass from James, closed out a 2006 playoff series with the Wizards) or Donyell Marshall (who missed a last-second shot off a LeBron feed in last year's Eastern Conference finals).
Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, having been lucky enough to get work as LeBron James' remora, understands what it means to be a star player. "That's why [LeBron] is going to go down as the best player ever in this game," Brown said after the game, "because not only can he score, not only can he rebound, he has the ultimate trust in his teammates." The Wizards' Eddie Jordan has a tougher job. Arenas, who was always a bit selfish on the court—a more likable, slightly less insane version of Stephon Marbury—is returning from an injury that has isolated him from the rest of the team. Earlier this month, for example, Arenas didn't bother to tell Jordan or any of the other Wizards that he planned to make a dramatic return from the ranks of the injured. After sitting out 66 games, the All-Star guard popped out of the locker room halfway through the first quarter of a game against Milwaukee and ran onto the floor. "He didn't really tell me, but that's Gil," said Jordan after that game. "I found out. Let's say it wasn't normal, proper channels, but I found out."
Arenas deferred to his hot-shooting, nonlimping teammates for most of Sunday's game, then played one on five when it really counted—an assist man for 47 minutes, a gunner at the end. By putting the ball in Arenas' hands, Jordan signaled that he was betting his season on an individual rather than the team. I'm not usually a believer in the importance of team chemistry, but it shouldn't be surprising that the team whose star doesn't talk to his teammates lost to the team whose star defers to his colleagues even though he might be the best basketball player in the universe.
If Arenas is a bad teammate, why is he such a folk hero? While he has been slow to return to form basketballwise, at least his blogging has remained superb. Before the first round began, he called out the Cavs, writing that "everybody wants Cleveland in that first round." No doubt inspired by Arenas' penchant for the grand gesture, fellow Wizard DeShawn Stevenson repeatedly called LeBron James "overrated," (possibly quasi-intentionally) raked James across the face in Game 4, came out for Game 3 with a mohawk, and flew in rapper Soulja Boy to sit courtside, which apparently led Jay-Z to write a (not-very-catchy) DeShawn Stevenson dis track titled "Blow the Whistle." ("He's worth about $500 million, and he's writing songs about me?" Stevenson asked before Sunday's game, self-lovingly. "What does that say about DeShawn Stevenson? Ballin'!")
Perhaps Charles Barkley is correct that "the Washington Wizards have got to be the dumbest team in the history of civilization." Arenas' and Stevenson's smack talk, and the latter's flagrant foul on Sunday, have seemed to push James into super-LeBron mode. All of the yapping, though, has added a frisson to what would have otherwise been a pedestrian series. The NBA would be a lot less fun to watch without guys like Gilbert Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson. With Arenas at the helm, the Wizards will never come close to winning a title. But remember that LeBron James is just 23 years old—he's going to need cannon fodder for at least the next decade. Let's hope that Agent Zero sticks around that long. It's incredibly fun to watch him lose.