While you were watching Kobe Bryant sit and watch the Lakers run through their paces on NBA TV’s “Real Training Camp” yesterday, the other L.A. team was watching their star run into a problem.
As the L.A. Clippers opened camp in the familiar shadow of their crosstown big brothers, new head coach Vinny Del Negro was already at odds with Baron Davis. Del Negro told reporters that Davis, essentially, isn’t in acceptable playing shape right now.
“Percentage-wise, I’d be guessing,” Del Negro was quoted by the L.A. Times. “He’s put in a lot of work in the last month or so. He started a little bit later probably than he needed to. He’s in pretty good shape right now, but he’s not where he needs to be. He knows that. Obviously, you want everybody in perfect condition. You have to come in training camp in shape. And the job in training camp is to get into better shape.”
Over the summer rumors had popped up (later refuted) that Baron was clocking in at 260 pounds, which Baron joked about in his media session. “I’d be the Charles Barkley of point guards,” he said.
I understand that not every ballplayer is wired to workout like a madman in the offseason — and some don’t need to — but it seems every year we’re reading a story about Baron Davis needing to get in better shape. Rasheed Wallace proved that you can jiggle through the regular season and still be forgiven if you come through with a couple of big games in the playoffs, but the Clippers haven’t made anybody’s playoffs during the Boom Dizzle era, and while this year’s squad looks good on paper, they’re certainly not a lock for 2011.
Baron lives the celebrity life. He takes advantage of his location near Hollywood. He’s often somewhere exotic traveling in the offseason, plus he has a ton of off-court business ventures that surely take up a lot of his time. I’m not hating on dude at all for getting his money and enjoying his fortune, but when the bread-and-butter of your empire is playing basketball, you have to get in basketball shape when the season comes around.
And so, at 31 years old, Baron is still one of the signature “If” players in the NBA: If he stays healthy … If he were on better teams … If he took better shots … If he worked harder … You get the idea. Undeniably talented, his career has been marked by a constant perception that he could be so much better.
But BD isn’t the marquee “If” player in the League. Neither is Greg Oden or Rajon Rondo or Shaq. That title belongs to Gilbert Arenas.
Just look at how much power Gilbert holds this season. He can be the key in lifting the Washington Wizards into playoff position, or he could be the reason they fall back into the Lottery. He could bring respectability back to the organization, or make them a national joke again. And it’s all centered on the “If” factor Gilbert brings to the table:
1. If he stays healthy — After losing essentially two years of his prime to knee injuries, Arenas came back last season with a green light to regain his All-Star form. He was averaging 22.6 points, 7.2 assists and 1.3 steals per game before his season was cut short again (more on that in a second), and while he showed no ill effects from the surgeries, another long layoff adds another layer of court rust that he’ll have to knock off this season. By all accounts, Arenas is in great shape and had no problems with his knees as the Wizards opened training camp early this morning, but his health will always be under the radar.
2. If he stays out of trouble — I’ve worked with Gilbert on multiple cover stories for Dime and a couple other features. He’s definitely not a knucklehead or a dummy like some would have you believe, but he has obviously made some bad decisions. The Gun Incident that cost him most of last season isn’t the kind of thing Gilbert would repeat knowing what he knows now, but Gilbert has all eyes on him, and they’re waiting for him to slip up.
3. If he’s focused — Like any talented artist, Gilbert can go off on his own personal tangents on a whim. But with the Wizards trying to build something in D.C. with their influx of young talent, he needs to stay within the system and not go on solo excursions unless coach Flip Saunders needs him to.
4. If he can be a leader — Can he lead that young talent? Earlier this summer it seemed inevitable that Arenas would be traded as the Wizards went for a new look and fresh start for the franchise, but he’s still in D.C. and is now one of the elder statesmen on the roster. Guys like John Wall, JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, Nick Young and Al Thornton will be looking to Arenas for direction.
5. If he can accept a No. 2 role — On the court, Arenas will take the most shots of anybody on the Wizards, and the ball will mostly be in his hands during crunch time. He makes the most money, too. But everywhere else, Arenas knows he’s not The Franchise anymore. That would be Wall, the rookie sensation who is the new face of the Wizards. As a point guard, part of Wall’s job is to help Arenas do what he does best: get buckets. So they should be able to get along. They could become one of the most explosive backcourts in the NBA if Gilbert doesn’t sink the effort because he wants all of the attention.
So far, so good. Arenas spent all summer working out in D.C. and impressing the Wizards’ new owner with how he looked on the court and acted off the court. He showed up to camp in shape and focused and showed flashes of the Arenas of old during the team’s “Midnight Madness” run in front of about 5,000 fans. He’s even grown a full beard to give him more of an grizzled-vet, assumed-leader appearance. (Or just to look like Rick Ross.)
With Gilbert leading the way in the locker room and on the court, the Wizards can make some noise in the East this year and set themselves up for a bright future. But that’s only if … well, you know.