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Trevor Ariza: The TDS Player Preview - No pressure, buddy

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The prodigal swingman returns. The Rockets' biggest offseason signing promises to be the most heavily scrutinized Rocket whose last name doesn't start with H. Can he repeat (or build on) his career year in Washington?

Trevor blocks some ding-dong on the Mavericks
Trevor blocks some ding-dong on the Mavericks
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Player: Trevor Ariza

Age: 29

Position: Small Forward

Acquired: Signed-and-traded from Washington in the deal that sent Omer Asik and Omri Casspi to the Pelicans; signed 4-year, $32 million contract

Contract Situation: That baby's fully guaranteed; he'll be a UFA in 2018

Nickname: Switchblade? (I don't know about that one. Feels weird - oh, what's that? Well, now I want to call him Switchblade.)

Funniest thing that has ever happened involving Trevor Ariza:

Aaaaaaahahahahaha. The play-by-play guy literally took 20 seconds to realize that it didn't count. It took twice as long for him to realize it didn't go in. Imagine sitting behind him!

OK, let's get one thing straight - this is not a post about Chandler Parsons. There's enough going on with Ariza and his return to Houston without spending this whole preview comparing him to his predecessor. We'll get to his fit with the Rockets, and what he'll change about them from last year to this one, but we should all agree to just move on from Parsons - until the Mavs come to town.

History

Ariza was one-and-done at UCLA before being drafted in the second round by the Knicks all the way back in 2004. He showed some raw potential, so of course the Knicks traded him - and this part amuses me to no end - as part of a package with Penny Hardaway to Orlando in exchange for Steve Francis. Trev's 29! How is someone who played with Penny Hardaway less than 30?!

A couple years later, Ariza found himself playing meaningful bench minutes during the Lakers' 2009 championship run, where he caught fire from 3 - he shot 50% that postseason - and made some crucial defensive plays. He parlayed that into a five-year, $33 million deal with the Rockets, and you probably know how that turned out.

Fast forward a little bit, and after a career year with the Wizards that ended with another breakout in the playoffs - he averaged 8.9 rebounds in the postseason, and scored 30 points in the 'Zards' Game 4 first-round victory over the Bulls - Trevor signed, you guessed it, a free agent contract with the Rockets, this time worth four years and $32 million. So, the Rockets have given him his last two contracts. How weird is that?

Ariza's arrival in Houston this summer occurred while Daryl Morey was still reportedly mulling over matching Parsons' offer sheet. While he paid lip service to the idea that both players could function together, what most people assumed - that Morey was moving on - turned out to be correct.

The Second Go-Round

Two things surprised me about Trev's return to Houston - that it happened at all, and that Rockets fans don't seem to be as pissed off at him as I thought they'd be. Maybe I'm misreading the situation, but it could be that he didn't spend long enough in Houston to really get under the fans' skin. Either way, there are several key differences which bode well for Ariza, Pt. 2: Arize Again.

1. His Teammates

Quick, what does Ariza's 2009 Lakers season have in common with his last season with the Wizards? If you guessed that he reached the playoffs, then, good for you, but that's not the point. The point is that he had a ball-dominant guard and inside scoring to play alongside. With Kobe on the outside and Pau and Bynum on the inside in '09 and John Wall (who led the league in percentage of his team's touches last year) and Marnê Gorlario last year, Trev was free to play off the ball and either make cuts to the basket or wait for the corner three, all without attracting too much attention from the defense. Here's his efficiency shot chart from the 2008-09 regular season with the Lakers. The color corresponds to how much better he is than league average from a given spot, with the size of each dot or square corresponding to how much he shoots from that spot. (Thanks, Nylon Calculus.)

Trevor got a lot of corner threes in the triangle, which is good, but he was just 23 and still hadn't developed into much of a shooter (insane playoffs hot streak notwithstanding). More interesting is how often he got to the basket, and how efficient he was at converting there. Here's next season with the Rockets:

Look at all those big blue squares at the top of the arc. Ariza was less efficient at the hoop, and shot a whole lot more (though he improved on the corner three, even with greater volume - from one side). This is the chart of a man who took a lot more difficult shots. According to Basketball-Reference, only 21 percent of his attempts from behind the arc came from the corner that year. Looking at the roster he was on, it's not hard to see why: since T-Mac was still injured (and then traded), Trevor led the team in minutes per game, with Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola at second and third, respectively (among players who played most of the season). After playing with Kobe and Pau in the triangle, he was asked to create his own shot at a far higher rate than before or since - that year, 84.6 percent of his three-point attempts were assisted, a career low by 10 percentage points.

Now let's take a look at his efficiency last season:

Hoo boy, that's a lot of red. Look at that beauty! Ariza averaged 5.7 three-point attempts per game last year, which is probably a little less than what we can expect this year (Parsons averaged 4.7, but he scored nearly half of his points in the paint last year, according to SportVU data - right around the same percentage Ariza got from his threes). But absolutely crucial to that is the distribution he gets from Harden, Howard and Pat Beverley. Since he left Houston, a whopping 96.5 percent of Ariza's made three pointers have been assisted. Over that time, he became a deadly spot-up shooter from (nearly) all around the arc, and wasn't asked to create his own shot.

This isn't as worrisome as it may sound, however. Harden averaged 20 assists per 100 possessions last year, and while that was less than John Wall's 28, it's a very respectable number. If Dwight can draw (and pass out of) more double teams in the paint this year, Ariza will be a very valuable asset to pair with him.

2. His Shooting

This was mostly covered in the last section, but I'll add a couple of things:

  • His True Shooting Percentage, which weights the value in threes and free throws, has jumped from 49 percent in his first full year with the Rockets to 59 percent last year
  • His efficiency from every distance on the floor has increased in the time he's been away
  • The percentage of mid-range shots he's attempted has decreased, from a little of the time to almost never
Basically, he's come back as the exact kind of wing Kevin McHale's offense wants.

3. His Defense

This was the main reason the Rockets signed him five years ago - his defense was championship-caliber, and his offense seemed to be coming along. But in his full year on the Rockets, his defensive rating was a career-worst 106, according to both B-Ref and SportVU. It's hard to separate him completely from the team around him (remember how much he played with Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola?), but he's obviously still a very effective defender now - though his rating last year was only 104 on B-Ref, SportVU graded him at 101, and his rebounding percentages have gone up as well.

All of these improvements are encouraging, of course, but they also make sense - he's in his athletic peak now at 29. One may be inclined to call it an "old 29" because of how long he's been in the league, but he's played 16,977 career minutes. Let's compare that to three other small forwards from his 2004 draft class.

  • Luol Deng (age 29): 24,235
  • Andre Iguodala (age 30): 28, 035
  • Josh Smith (hey, he played there last year)(age 28): 25, 808

You know who else was drafted in 2004? Dwight Howard. Career minutes: 27,578 plus a major back injury. I don't see any reason for Switchblade (still feels weird) to fall off in the next year or two, especially considering he's been incredibly durable in his career thus far (knock on wood).

Shoes To Fill

In terms of his likelihood to be put on billboards and bedroom posters, Ariza can't hold a candle to Chandler Parsons' impact. But even though Chandler had a better offensive rating last year, that was mostly due to his effective penetration. By any available metric, Trevor had a better shooting year. He will obviously be a better defender, and his rebounding rate beat Chandler's as well (and before you blame Dwight for that, remember Marnê Gorlario and John Wall's good rebound rate for his position).

Without a doubt, Parsons was a more creative player off the bounce, but Ariza's 3-and-D game fits this team like a glove. Yes, Parsons can still improve, but he also obviously wanted to spread his wings a little bit, which I'm not convinced this team needed, or wanted. Star power, schmlar schmlower.

Going Forward

I think Ariza's deal could turn out to be a fantastic one for the Rockets, especially with the projected increase in the salary cap. He's signed through his age-32 season, and his game ages well. He's no third star, but he's a rock-solid piece in this starting lineup, where he gives the Rockets a third plus defender. His specific defensive role figures to be guarding the team's best wing player, taking more pressure off Harden than Parsons could, while occupying a defender just as much, due to his outside shooting.

Terrence Jones remains the biggest question mark in the first five, but if he can more consistently be an offensive threat from the high post, this becomes a devastating starting lineup. And if Harden can shore up his defense even a little, only the bench holds this team back from being a real contender in the West.