Thankfully, Trevor Ariza has not been one of the many injured Rockets so far this season (knocks on every available wooden object). He also hasn't quite played up to the level of his previous season in Washington. Why does this all seem familiar?
Trevor Ariza, after a career year, signed a multi-year free agent deal to be Houston's starting small forward, and once coming over, has been asked to shoulder a bigger offensive burden, with fewer threats around him to provide the space he needs to be an effective shooter, especially from the corners. Yep, definitely familiar.
So, what's the source of the problem?
Because the aforementioned lack of offensive threats is largely injury-related and not an inherent flaw of the team to which he was brought, Rockets fans are quicker to forgive than last year. Commenter Michael 2k made this reasoned argument under last night's recap:
And I'd chill on the Ariza criticism, given his situation.
He ‘s been asked to pick up his offense with the injured guys out, but he has seen a huge spike in his minutes. He literally plays 40+ minutes a night and he looks exhausted. When your role player plays more minutes than Harden, then you know there's a problem with minutes management. He's not an ironman, so I'm just hoping that he isn't the next one in a suit. We're breaking him down.
Ariza has played the most minutes of any NBA player this season, and he's third in minutes per game. (Harden is second in overall minutes, and fifth per game). His three point shooting this year, even including his early hot streak, sits at 35%. It has been obvious he's been tired. Only 34% of his three-point attempts are coming from the corner this year, his lowest percentage since his last stint in Houston. Here's his shot chart this year.
Those bottom percentages are what percentage of his total shots has been taken from each zone. It's also been obvious he's been forced out of his comfort zone. Although I will say one thing: He is not that bad driving to the basket.
I agree with our commenters that he looks somewhat out of control, and downright gawky compared to Harden. But on driving layups, he's actually shooting 64% - for comparison, Harden's at 69%. That's better, but not a wide gulf. Overall, he's at 50% from the restricted area, which is not elite, but not so bad for a 6'8" guy. All of this info comes from NBA.com's player tracking data, which also revealed something upsetting to me.
Is he too tired to actually play elite defense?
His defensive rating sits at a pretty 95.7, reflective of the great team defense the Rockets have played all season. But one set of numbers is, if not ominous, concerning: players he's guarding are averaging 49% from the field overall, 5% above average. Inside of ten feet, that number jumps to 69.5%, 15% worse than average. Inside of 6 feet, even worse. He's held it together at the three-point line, where opponents are basically shooting league average against him. (Again, all these stats from NBA.com's player tracking data).
The necessary caveat here is that Ariza is often guarding the opponent's best perimeter player, not a league average player. Just because he's giving up more makes doesn't mean he's not playing good defense. But still, you'd expect an elite defender (which he still may be, and which plenty of smart people say he is) to actually, you know, make those players shoot worse than they do normally.
Overall, I don't think this is enough to say that Trevor has not played well defensively. He's played the most minutes on an elite defensive unit, and most of it without two of the Rockets' other defensive stalwarts, Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley.
The defensive rating is still very good, and his opponent's shooting numbers start to look elite from mid-range and out. I think that if we can be forgiven a small leap of logic, we can say that tired legs might lead to Ariza letting quicker players get past him and to the rim, where for a large chunk of time, Dwight has not been there to offer help.
But Michael 2k raises the other real concern:
Should we be concerned about his minutes?
Again, no clear answers. Yes, 37.9 minutes per game is a lot, and would be a career high by a couple of minutes for T.A. However, he's 29, so he's fully grown into his own body. He's only had two injuries over the course of his career that made him miss significant time, and this would be only his fifth season averaging over 30 minutes per game.
Worried about him come playoff time? Obviously, every year is different, but after averaging 35 minutes last year for the Wizards, he averaged 13.9 points per game during the playoffs, shooting 44% from three and grabbing 8.9 boards per game.
Obviously, we all want to see this Rockets team get healthier, and for James Harden and Trevor Ariza to play fewer minutes. Of all the guys to lean on, though, these are the two - hopefully three eventually, if Dwight can stay healthy for an extended period. He's still contributing to a great defense, and he has not been a total minus on offense. When the reinforcements come, we'll see how well he shoots. And if he doesn't improve, then it's time to talk again.