Despite the Washington Wizards’ struggles during last year’s 19-win season, forwards Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler managed to put up their typical All-Star-worthy numbers.
But such production was harder than it had ever been for Jamison, who averaged 22.2 points and 8.9 rebounds, and Butler, who had 20.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists a game.
With the Wizards’ leading scorer and playmaker (Gilbert Arenas), their best center (Brendan Haywood) and a reliable perimeter threat (DeShawn Stevenson) all shelved by injuries, Jamison and Butler routinely faced double teams. Teams knew the Wizards had no other player worthy of demanding their attention, and so Washington’s forwards had to exert double the effort simply to remain as effective.
But judging by Tuesday night’s preseason opener - in which a healthy Arenas and newly acquired backup Randy Foye accounted for 13 of their team’s 21 assists and Jamison and Butler scored 20 and 15 points in limited action - offensive production won’t be nearly as challenging a battle for the Wizards’ team captains.
Arenas wasn’t back to the high-scoring assassin that he was before blowing out his knee in 2007 - he only attempted five shots. Nevertheless, the explosiveness he displayed forced the Memphis Grizzlies to account for him just the same. Arenas often crossed over counterpart Mike Conley and got into the lane, drawing Memphis power forward Zach Randolph or small forward Rudy Gay toward him. That left Jamison or Butler unaccounted for, so Arenas served up an assist.
There wasn’t much of a drop-off when Foye took Arenas’ place on the floor. The fourth-year veteran pressured defenses with his similar knack for getting into the lane and forcing defenders toward him.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jamison said. “Having a guy like [Arenas] and even like [Foye], they put so much pressure on the defense that sometimes I was so open that I didn’t know what to do. Those are the things that we can bring offensively. My guy has to help on Gilbert or Randy, but if they pass it to me, they can’t leave [top 3-point threat] Mike [Miller] or Caron open in the corner.”
In April, Jamison and Butler embraced the chance to discuss the impact a recovered Arenas would have on the Wizards. Not only would they be getting back a player who averaged 27.7 points a game from 2004 to 2007 but an exceptional playmaker as well. Both forwards were aware of the fact that their offensive production might dip slightly since they would have to share the ball with Arenas, but neither minded.
Then Arenas himself gave both players assurances during the offseason that he didn’t want them to change what they had become during his absence. Arenas let them know he still would give opponents fits but perhaps as a running mate instead of lead dog.
“Even in Chicago this past summer when I went to visit him, [Arenas] always told me, ‘CB stay aggressive. You and Antawn continue to do what you do,’ ” Butler said.
“It’s kinda like what Kobe told me a couple years ago,” continued Butler, who played for the Lakers in the 2004-05 season. “[Bryant] told me: ‘I’m going to find my way. You and Lamar [Odom] do what you do, and I’ll figure it out.’ That’s what great players do. They find their way, and Gil’s going to find his way.”
Arenas, who handed out 10 assists Tuesday night, did display some rust as a scorer, going 1-for-5 from the field and 3-for-9 from the foul line.
“[Arenas] had a 20-[point], 10-[assist] game right on his fingertips,” coach Flip Saunders said. “You’re not going to see him miss six free throws and some of the layups he missed.”
The Wizards definitely will take a 27-point night from Arenas if he cranks one out, but they gladly will accept the playmaker version they saw Tuesday night. Because if that happens, the sorrows of last season will be forgotten quickly, and there will be plenty of smiles and shots to go around.
“It’s great because guys can’t really double. You’ve got scorers out there like myself, Gilbert, Antawn, Brendan Haywood, Nick Young - where’s the double team going to come from?” Butler said, chuckling. “Somebody’s going to be able to put it in the hole. Having all those guys out there, it’s just fun. It keeps everybody honest. It’s just going to be great.”