But first, how Gilbert Arenas is nothing like Michael Vick.
At media day, Gilbert Arenas said everything would be different. The one-time clown prince of the NBA, humbled by injuries and thrown off track by a certain firearms incident, is strictly business from here on out. The press will get all the right lines. On the court, Arenas will crack a smile only when he's earned it through his play.
It's important to note, though, that Gil -- whatever he may have learned over the last few years -- isn't saying he's a better or more mature person. Gilbert Arenas wants us to know, simply, that he has figured out what's acceptable in polite society. JaVale McGee expects nothing less than the same old Gilbert in the intimate space of the locker room.
Comebacks are supposed to be morally unimpeachable, or at least scrubbed clean. The NBA axed Comeback Player of the Year because all the winners were returning from drug problems. Arenas hasn't played any extended period of time since 2007, in large part for health reasons, but no one remembers that. It's the Wizards locker room showdown, and the irreverence that followed, that finally put Gil in the public eye. He's not just expected to play well again -- he's supposed to have learned from his mistakes.
Yet the crux of Arenas's comments isn't that he's seen the light, but that he'll be more professional. That doesn't mean that Arenas is any different as a person. McGee says as much. And then we're left asking: if Gil has simply learned how to (pun intended) play the game, will this comeback be accepted?
This weekend, BET re-ran some episodes of "The Michael Vick Project," a 2009 reality show that chronicled Vick's efforts to put his life back together, get back to the NFL, and come to grips with his sins. As the pride of the Falcons, Vick was at once arrogant and taciturn. Maybe he was just bad with the press. But no reports from behind the scenes gave any indications that Michael Vick was particularly open, trusting, or expressive. More than once, he was described as dense. While much of America will never forgive Vick, there's no question that he's changed.
For the moment, Vick has seized the Eagles starting quarterback job, and has proven to be a more dangerous, fluid, and well-rounded football player than in his first go-round. Somewhere between the freak athlete that once captivated the league, and the astute pocket passer that all running QBs are expected to grow into, Michael Vick has in two games established himself as one of the NFL's premier attractions.
Some will take comfort, or read too much into, the fact that Vick is now a more disciplined player. Style can, at times, have a moral valence to it. But what has turned Vick from arch-fiend into an athlete on the mend isn't just his resurgent star power. In sharp contrast to his wooden, blank statements at the time of his sentence, or even his stolid 60 Minutes interview with James Brown after his release, the man captured in "The Michael Vick Project" is downright effusive.
Granted, through the magic of multiple takes and producer coaching, anyone can come off as transformed. The maudlin soundtrack certainly helps, and really, it's not that hard to say "it was wrong to electrocute those dogs" and mean it.
But as one particularly grim episode points out, that Vick thought dog fighting was OK is as much a problem as the fact that he participated in it. That's why reformed gang members can be so valuable to the community. Getting someone to break out of the way they were brought up, and then having him go out and try to affect this change in others, is -- if not salvation -- at least a move in the right direction. Vick may not be anyone's idea of a perfect human being, but if this country still loves the possibility of making amends, repenting, and trying for some sort of redemption, then his story now officially registers as a comeback, not just a return to football by a bad, bad man.
All of which brings us back to Arenas. His entire statement consisted of saying, more or less, "I know better now." Of course that means no more guns in the Verizon Center, but the focus isn't on the danger he put himself and others in. Gilbert Arenas didn't have a problem with guns, he had one with responsibility. He may be the consummate professional from here on out, but all that means is that his personality, and occasional lapses in judgment, won't get in the way of playing basketball for the Washington Wizards.
Arenas is more post-Brawl Ron Artest than Michael Vick redux. He's not unrepentant; he just wishes the whole thing had never happened. Artest has remained downright batty over the years, but as we all learned during the Finals, has sought psychological help to keep his personality from capsizing his career. It's not about learning to tell right from wrong, but figuring out how to fit pegs into holes. Neither reckless gun possession nor attacking fans are good decisions, no matter who you are. But they don't automatically turn an athlete into the enemy -- just a running punchline.
The problem, though, is that they inhabit a nether-region that makes it impossible to ever fully cure them. It says as much about the lens through which we view sports as it does the game's great eccentrics, and in the end, explains why Michael Vick can make a comeback while Arenas and Artest are always going to be stuck with who they are. (BS)
Watchability Index 2010-11
For NBA teams, there's more to being the best than being the best. At least, that is, if you're talking about inspiring fans to watch your games in the dark, cold winter of the NBA season. Some take this to mean that we need fewer games; these are the same ones who throw up their hands and exclaim, like a man in solitary, "no basketball is better than this basketball." We call these people fools. Tapping into the mother lode of subjective goodness, The Works has put together the definitive measure of whether or not a team will be worth your hard-earned League Pass dollars.
Quality: Projected wins taken from the 2010-11 Pro Basketball Prospectus. It's difficult to watch mediocrity on the regular, so quality turns out being the most important (and heavily weighted) aspect of Watchability.
Pace: Speed of play, based on last year's statistics and any coaching or major personnel changes. Up-tempo teams are more fun to watch. That's science.
Star Power: This is a league of stars. Is there one guy you will watch on every play?
Long-Term Potential: Everyone likes to gaze into the future and say he was there first.
Style: Style points don't win games, but they count for something.
Narrative: Is there a story here, a hook that lends itself to playoff intros?
Spirituality: Where amazing happens, you love this game, and any weeknight can give you chills like the Finals buzzer.
And now, with help from Kevin Pelton and the 2010-11 Pro Basketball Prospectus, the NBA Watchability Index '10-11:
The most watchable teams trend toward the upper-right quadrant. The least watchable teams trend toward the bottom-left. Teams in the other two (white quadrants represent entities best left to personal taste. Some notes:
* The watchable teams of the '10-11 season are the Heat, Thunder, Blazers, Magic, Bulls, Lakers, Mavericks, Knicks, Kings, Bucks, Celtics and Jazz. The Hornets, Spurs, Warriors and Nets just missed the cut.
* The unwatchable teams of the '10-11 season are the Pistons (sorry, Matt), Clippers, Wolves, Pacers, Cavs, 76ers, Raptors, Grizzlies, Bobcats and Hawks. These teams all double as among the worst clubs in the NBA, per Pelton's SCHOENE projections for Prospectus. In other words, if your team is too far to the left for your liking, don't blame us. (For the record, Pelton's record is pretty darn good.)
* The Heat are must-watch TV for serious fans every single time out, according to the Index. It'll be interesting to see to what degree casual fans agree. Could it be the first team since Jordan's Bulls that fans of all interest levels become enamored with?
* There's an obvious relationship between quality and interest level before we even input the SCHOENE projections, owing largely to the "star power" and "long-term potential" categories, but also "narrative." Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets can have a compelling narrative on a bad team, but that's not typically the norm. (BS + TZ)
The Works Season Previews: New Jersey Nets + Sacramento Kings
Nobody has the entire National Basketball Association at his fingertips, and believe it or not, the brains of Msr. Ziller and Msr. Shoals are not connected by tape and electrical wire. To get prepped -- and pumped -- for the upcoming season, we will interrogate each about the darkest corners of this league. For each team, some questions. And for each question, some answers. First, the Nets.
BS: Will the Nets improve even if they fail to land Carmelo Anthony?
TZ: For all the groans during and after New Jersey's mediocre offseason, the Nets' talent base is upgraded quite a bit. Not too long ago, Travis Outlaw was a promising firefly right out of the Dantley playbook. That perhaps no longer applies; Dantley gunned, but still had a conscious. Outlaw constantly looks like he's trying to make up for lost time on the court, which is a problem when your best (and most frequently leaned on) skill is shooting. But Outlaw's replacing some combination of Jarvis Hayes, Kris Humphries and Trenton Hassell in the rotation. That's a big upgrade.
Troy Murphy and Derrick Favors are huge upgrades over Josh Boone and (sadly enough) Yi Jianlian at the non-Brook Lopez big man spot; in fact, Murphy might well be Yi realized. (Something tells me Yi wouldn't have gone lotto had his nickname been the Chinese Troy Murphy instead of the Chinese Dirk.) In the backcourt, Anthony Morrow (the best shooter in the league) comes in to help replace Courtney Lee and Chris Douglas-Roberts; Terrence Williams and Damion James should also be able to help out. (Depending on your feelings about Williams, he might do more than just help.) Jordan Farmar is better than Keyon Dooling. I think.
While Lawrence Frank is a stud coach, Kiki Vandeweghe is apparently not. As such, Avery Johnson, as tightly wound as he is, represents a major upgrade. This team will soar by 12 wins around or before Christmas.
BS: How long before Favors starts over Murphy? Is it important to get him in even if he's not ready yet, for experience's sake?
TZ: In Dallas, under Avery, Devin Harris was stuck behind Jason Terry and sometimes Marquis Daniels at the point for the end of the 2005-06 regular season. Harris was a 22-year-old in his second season. Favors just recently turned 19. I think it's safe to say Johnson will bring him along slowly.
That said, you get the sense Johnson and the franchise might need to toss Favors a bone at some point, and given that the team doesn't expect to contend, that bone could be in the form of huge minutes. No other lottery pick in recent memory (outside of Yi and Ricky Rubio, both operating under special circumstances) has been subjected to such loud trade rumors so early in his career. Favors is a strong-minded kid; he's not going to slink off to a dark place because the Nets are willing to trade him. But he can be a smiley rook and still harbor deep-seated resentment for the drama. Being trusted by the Little General and given a nice, fat role could erase all that.
BS: Who leads the Nets in scoring and will he be respected for it?
TZ: Lopez should be the top scorer again, even though Murphy fits the Dirk role in Johnson's offense. That's perhaps the most intriguing narrative line about these Nets outside of Favors: how does Lopez fit Johnson and vice versa? Bro-pez is not the choir boy some make him out to be, and Avery doesn't tolerate lip. Lopez has now had a taste of alpha-dom, albeit for a historically bad team. If Johnson puts the ball back in Harris' hands, it'll be interesting to see whether Lopez adapts or holds out for post-oriented ball.
If anyone other than Lopez, Harris or Carmelo Anthony leads the Nets in scoring, this season will have been an embarrassment and Prokhorov should sell immediately.
And now, the Kings:
But Greene has been gradually progressing since first revealing to the world that he could block shots and sink threes in the pros. He's now generally regarded as a very good defender, if still something of an enigma on offense. Casspi is, as his second half indicated, quite mortal, or at least prone to slumps or nights where innate feel for the game can't make up for bad shooting or overall green-ness. Still, Greene remains a lottery ticket, a situational choice, whereas Casspi -- who is still growing as a player, rather than the condescending "coming along" -- is more likely to settle in and produce on any given night.
TZ: Greene is considered a very good defender by members of the Donte Greene family and members of the Donte Greene Fan Club, of which I happen to be the president. That said, I'm trying to get "Donte Greene is a very good defender" stricken from our charter. Regarding Casspi's consistent production: it does not yet exist. He might be the streakiest shooter in the NBA, and I am including Channing Frye and the 2009-10 Warriors in my assessment.
BS: The Spurs are the only place left where the catch-all term "big man" doesn't exist. By this same token, maybe all could be saved if the Kings simply stopped talking about point guards and shooting guards, like every night was one big All-Star Game. Is the concern that, if the score-tastic Evans stops being a point guard, then his playmaking abilities will change? Or just the perception of them? Have we really gone from "points are cheap" to "assists are cheap?" He handles the ball a lot and gets the ball to others, even if Evans isn't focused on traditionally running an offense a lot of the time.
Here's the Catch-22: If Evans isn't doing anything lesser than what a point guard does, why can't we call him one? Saying that he's like a point guard, but different, is complicated by the presence of another point guard. It suggests that he doesn't adequately fill that void. Then again, Duncan always wanted a center because he liked to play away from the basket some. A clunky, functional center. Duncan has proven that there can be a middling center to complement a superstar big man. Just as the once-great center position was brought down by the likes of Duncan, so Evans is inadvertently contributing to the death of the PG if a lesser, simply adequate player is put in that position. It's like Wade and Mario Chalmers in Miami.
TZ: You are just wrong here, bro. This is the Year of Francisco Garcia. El Flaco's problem was never piled under talent in general; he had two specific foils, both of which are now gone: Kevin Martin and John Salmons. Martin preceded Garcia in Sacramento by a year. They have almost identical bodies and complexions. Martin can drop 40 any given night, and Garcia isn't built that way. Problem! Next to Martin, in terms of firepower, Garcia looks like Bruce Bowen.
Then there was Salmons, a do-everything wing who managed to stay completely healthy with the Kings, and parlayed his opportunity into demi-stardom. Had it been Garcia in that role, maybe El Flaco would be a hero in Milwaukee. But Garcia was on the shelf while Salmons soared. Now that the latter is gone, Garcia's shot has arrived. And not a moment too soon.
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.