The last six months of Trevor Ariza’s basketball life will be compacted into the next 48 hours, when he plays the Houston Rockets and then the Phoenix Suns while wearing a Washington Wizards’ uniform.
If that’s not poetic justice, what is? Here’s a player who was the perfect fit on a championship-contending team in Houston, but chose money last summer during free agency and signed with the Suns. They subsequently tanked and realized giving him $15 million was a big mistake, so they bailed after 26 games and shipped him to another of his former teams, the Wizards, who need a wake-up call.
His journey is almost as exhausting as it was to write that last sentence.
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A nutty NBA season has nothing on Ariza's bouncy path littered with dollars, defeats, uncertainty and (surely) misery, or as miserable as a rich player can get. Just last May he was a game away from reaching The Finals. Now he’s being asked to make sense of the weirdo Wizards while dealing with scar tissue from a disastrous experience in Phoenix. And he’s not on the team he reportedly really wants to be with, the Lakers.
This is a story of a middle-aged player who jumped at his last chance for a big payday at the expense of winning. It's also one of a team (the Rockets) that underestimated his value to them, and another team (the Suns) that overestimated his value to them, and a third team (the Wizards) that may soon realize he’s an answer but not the answer to their problems. That sound about right?
“I try not to think of it that way,” Ariza said about his path to his third team since summer. “I take it one day at a time, every obstacle as it comes, and whatever situation comes my way I try to handle it accordingly.”
First, know that Ariza is a versatile wingman who makes analytics swoon because he shoots 3s and defends the perimeter. He adjusted his game to fit the NBA trend, becoming a reliable catch-and-shoot player (40.3 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season) who can defend guards and forwards. But at 33, Ariza's perhaps past his prime and can only impact certain teams (as proof, nobody was willing to give him a multiyear, big-money deal last summer). He was great for the Rockets at $9 million a season and overpriced for the Suns at almost twice that amount.
He left the Rockets because they ran out of money last summer, or at least more than they were willing to pay him. They gave Chris Paul a max contract last summer even though Paul can’t stay healthy and will make $44 million as a 36-year-old. But the Rockets likely promised Paul that deal when they traded for him two summers ago. They also gave Clint Capela a reported $90 million over five years because he’s a good center, which in today’s NBA is like being the skinniest guy at a fat man’s convention.
Some players in that situation might grit their teeth and re-signed. But Ariza has never cashed in big (relatively speaking) in his career and the Suns came running with $15 million for some unexplained reason. Phoenix didn’t need Ariza at any price because (a) the Suns are stocked with young players at his position who need to be developed, and (b) they weren’t a veteran away from doing anything special. As we’ve seen, they still aren’t.
It didn’t make sense for Phoenix (this was the last deal by doomed general manager Ryan McDonough, who was fired in early October) and only made financial sense for Ariza. Overall, he played poorly for the Suns, shooting a career-worst 35.3 percent. But since this is professional sports and careers are short, Ariza chose to make money and deal with losing, which means he earned exactly what he got.
Ariza lost more games in one month in Phoenix than he did all season with the Rockets. But he knew that when he signed up for it. The Suns were never built to win now.
“The (Wizards) couldn’t be struggling any more than I was going through,” Ariza said. “Losing is always tough no matter where you are, so that wasn’t comfortable at all. I didn’t go into that situation with any expectations. I was just going to try to help the players get better and the team to improve. That’s it.”
Some NBA personnel people saw this as a case where a player knew he could get the money and eventually a better team because, with an expiring contract, Ariza qualified as a prime trade asset. If that was the master plan, it worked ... sort of. Ariza did get traded, but to the Wizards -- and not to the Lakers, Rockets or any of the other contenders who sniffed around.
Ordinarily, the Wizards wouldn’t have interest, either, in a player who’s just a stopgap guy. They envisioned a longer relationship with Kelly Oubre Jr., who’s 10 years younger. But they shipped Oubre to Phoenix in the Ariza trade because they weren’t in position to pay him next summer when he becomes a restricted free agent. The Wizards’ money is spent on Otto Porter Jr., whom they retained after matching a $106 million offer sheet by Brooklyn in 2017. That essentially made Oubre, who plays the same position as Porter Jr., a goner in Washington.
And that’s come to symbolize the Wizards’ issue right now: The only bang for the buck they’re getting is an exploding cigar. They’ve got the sixth-highest payroll in the NBA and the league's sixth-worst record. Porter, Bradley Beal (due $107 million more) and John Wall ($207 million) have combined to do little for the basketball pulse in D.C. and still have yet to cause much of a ripple in the relatively weak Eastern Conference.
The Wizards need ... something. A spark, a splash of cold water to the face, anything to roust the talent on a club where the core players are all in their prime (and two of them, Beal and Wall, are All-Stars). The hope is that Ariza can perhaps recharge the Wizards -- something he couldn't do in Phoenix.
“We’re excited about having him,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks. “He’s one of the best wing defenders in the league. He brings that professionalism every night, a winner. We’re having a tough start and a guy like him can help us play better because he brings consistent effort on both ends and knows his role. I told him if he’s open, shoot it. His length, outside shooting, toughness, defense and experience, we need that. He’s done it for a lot of years.”
It helps that there’s a bit of nostalgic karma at work here. Ariza was with the Wizards in 2013-14 and helped them make the playoffs. He also helped Beal and Wall grow up, mentoring them on the finer points of being an NBA player. They're both thrilled to have Ariza back.
“He can play at a high level, knock down shots, does all the little things defensively to change a team,” Wall said. “Brad and I have grown up a lot since then. Trevor helped us then and I think he can help us get over the hump now.”
Wall believes the Wizards are a win streak away from righting their ship and hopes that will happen once Ariza returns to his Rockets form. He can hopefully rev up a defense that ranks in the bottom five in Defensive Rating, Rebound Percentage while allowing tons of fast-break and second-chance points.
Wall also notes that in the East, where the only beast might be Toronto, the season is never over in December. There are other teams in Washington’s situation.
“We’ve had a tough road where we’ve needed to know what we want to do with our team,” Wall said. “When we get healthy and everybody plays their roles I think we can be a team that wins 50 games. Right now it doesn’t look like it, but a couple years ago we won 17 games in a row at home. We can catch fire. We know where to do, we just got to do it now. There’s no time to be waiting.”
Their season can’t be any more insane than Ariza’s has been so far. Maybe they’ll be good for each other and this reunion will prove to be destiny. Maybe they’ll stabilize each other’s basketball lives and even better, make sense of it.
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