The Big Twenty

The Big Twenty: The rise and fall of Gilbert Arenas

The Big Twenty

When asked to point out when Gilbert Arenas' downfall began, most would cite his infamous decision to bring guns into the Wizards locker room in Dec. 21, 2009. But those who followed his career closely know the turning point was actually on April 4, 2007.

That night the Wizards were playing the Charlotte Bobcats when forward Gerald Wallace missed a layup in traffic and fell into Arenas' left knee, tearing his medial collateral ligament (MCL). Even at the time, the injury did not seem as daunting as a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or Achilles tendon, yet little did we know Arenas would never be the same.

That moment was the beginning of the end of one of the most promising careers in the NBA at the time. Arenas rose to stardom quickly, but he crashed just as fast, leaving many to this day wondering what could have been.

Arenas' ascension began with the Golden State Warriors, where he went from a second-round draft pick to the NBA's most improved player in 2002-03 to free agency, all in a span of two years. Due to a loophole in the league's collective bargaining agreement that has since been changed, Arenas was able to bolt from the Warriors and sign for more money with the Wizards.

By his second year in Washington, Arenas was an NBA All-Star. And by his third year he was competing for scoring titles, averaging 29.3 points per game, second in franchise history only to Walt Bellamy's 31.6 in 1961-62.

The Wizards had been to the playoffs just once in 16 years before 2005 when Arenas helped lead them to three straight postseason runs. He made All-NBA three times, the first Wizards/Bullets player to do so since Elvin Hayes in the 1970s. The only other Wizards player to make All-NBA this century was John Wall and he's done it once.

 

Arenas wasn't simply an NBA star, either. He was a showman with a knack for coming through in big moments. He made a series of buzzer-beaters during the brief time he was at his peak powers, including one to win a playoff game against the Chicago Bulls in 2005.

Arenas had many other clutch shots during the regular season, including one against the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 3, 2007 when he turned and casually walked away, as if he knew it was going in. He made fans who showed up to the arena always feel like they could see something special that night.

Arenas holds the franchise record for points in a single game with 60, set on Dec. 17, 2006 on a night the late Kobe Bryant famously said Arenas had "no conscience." That game fell within a 30-day stretch where Arenas scored 50 points or more three times. Just six days later, after dropping 60 at Staples Center, he scored 54 against the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns, one of the best NBA teams of that decade.

To understand just how special Arenas was as a scorer, just look at this list. Here are the only players since 2000 to score 50 points or more three times within a single season: Bryant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson. Arenas is the only one who won't end up in the Hall of Fame. That's how good of an offensive player he was.

Arenas’ size and strength for a point guard, 6-foot-4 with broad shoulders, was a major match-up problem. He was before his time in that regard, a bully at the position years before big point guards like Wall and Westbrook became commonplace.

Arenas combined that strength with a cat-quick first step and deep shooting range that pushed the boundaries of what was possible. He could pull up from 35 feet and sink a jump shot or put the ball on the floor and muscle his way to the rim. That combination led to him being one of the best in the game at getting to the free-throw line, where he shot 80.3 percent for his career. He averaged as many as 10 free throws per game back in 2005-06.

All those factors made Arenas one of the most gifted scorers of his generation. Several years ago, former teammate Caron Butler compared his game to Harden's and it's easy to see why. A lot of what we see today from Harden and other elite deep shooters like Curry and Atlanta’s Trae Young has roots in Arenas’ days in Washington.

There was also Arenas’ personality which, though quirky and with a dark side that would later reveal itself in full, helped make him a larger-than-life superstar. He would light up opposing teams, then deliver front-page quotes afterward. Lines like “my swag was phenomenal” and “hibachi” were part of his legend.

 

Unfortunately, Arenas' career can't be explained without including a wide variety of negative storylines. His knee injury was followed by a frustrating saga between him and the Wizards’ medical staff. His post-playing career has been marred by controversial statements and a disconnect with the Wizards franchise. And, of course, there is the gun incident in the locker room at Capital One Arena, among the most ill-advised off-court decisions in league history.

Arenas lived an eventful, yet incomplete NBA life. His career was over at age 30. If he had only stayed healthy, and out of his own way, maybe he would have ended up in the Hall of Fame. Maybe he would have led the Wizards to places they haven’t been in decades. We’ll never know. All we can do is continue to marvel at his extraordinary rise-and-fall, even all these years later.