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Less is more: How Trevor Ariza has been revived this year

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Trevor Ariza is less involved this season, and that’s been good for both him and Rockets.

New York Knicks v Houston Rockets Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

One of the biggest changes we were hoping to see this season for the Rockets was a slight reduction in the responsibilities of Trevor Ariza. With no other real perimeter threats last year, Ariza was forced into heavy minutes and a big workload on both sides of the ball, and it didn’t work out as well as anyone would have hoped.

That’s changed this year. With the help the Rockets have gotten for Ariza in the form of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, the 31-year-old veteran has seen both his minutes and his usage take a slight dip. The end result here in his 13th year in the Association has been a bounce-back season for the team and the player.

Ariza’s minutes have taken a slight dip this season from 35.3 to 33.8. That minute and a half may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind, when a player is above that 35-minute mark, they’re playing a ton of basketball. Every single night.

Ideally, Ariza would be seeing time in the 30- to 32-minute range, and as Sam Dekker continues to mature, that may actually be possible as the season progresses. Getting Clint Capela back would help too, as Dekker will likely spend less time at the four and more time directly backing up Ariza. But for now, that little extra rest time has helped Ariza.

The biggest knock on Trev last year was that he appeared to lose a step, especially defensively. His stats weren’t terrible, but they weren’t what you’d usually expect from the Rockets’ main three-and-D man. He did finish fourth in the NBA in steals, but he also had a -0.65 defensive RPM, which ranked 40 out of 63 small forwards.

But perhaps most noticeable was the eye test. He just looked a step slow. CBS Sports’ Matt Moore rightfully called out his poor transition D in his long piece on the Rockets’ awful defense last year. The Rockets were worse overall as a team, but the slippage for Ariza was visually noticeable.

This year, however, he’s shown us more of the Ariza of old. He’s currently third in the league in steals and his average of 2.2 is not only higher than last year’s 2.0, but it’s also the highest average of his career. His DRPM has also shot up to +1.74, which ranks 8th out of 79 small forwards, placing him back in the elite class of wing defenders.

Granted, it’s still early in the year, and it is possible Ariza could still gas out like he did in the Rockets playoff series loss to the Golden State Warriors, when he shot 13-51 from the field on some seriously dead legs. But the 1.5 minutes fewer per game he’s playing this year works out to 123 fewer minutes on the season (with possibly more down the stretch). That means something toward helping to keep him fresh.

Ariza is also less of an offensive focus for the team during his time on the court. One of the results is fewer forays into the paint and more spotting up for threes.

Ariza’s 10.2 shot attempts this season are only a small drop from the 10.6 he shot last year, but the big difference is that this season, he’s shooting an extra three-point shot per game (7.2 attempts to 6.2 attempts). That’s helped to push his makes from beyond the arc to 2.7 per game, which is the highest average of his career. He’s cashing 37.6 percent of those, a slight uptick from last season.

That also means he’s being more selective with his two-point shot, taking just three shots inside the arc each game. The better shot selection on his 2s has resulted in a .578 shooting percentage on two-pointers, again the highest average of his career. Less than 3 percent of his shots are from mid-range, the lowest mark of his career, meaning the twos he is taking are primarily at the rim.

His use percentage has also dropped. The 14.8 usage rate he’s racked up this year is the second lowest of his career and the lowest since the 36 games he spent with the Knicks in the 2005-2006 season. Ariza is being put in position to do what he does best offensively and isn’t asked to overextend past his skill set. That’s a credit to Mike D’Antoni and the coaching staff for getting the most out of their players. Coach of the Year, anyone?

Ultimately, this slight realignment of Ariza’s duties has been a smashing success. The Rockets are cruising along at a 60-win pace and sit just 1.5 games behind the San Antonio Spurs and four back of Golden State. Meanwhile, Trev is having one of the most efficient offensive seasons of his career and has had a total rebirth on the defensive side of the ball.

The front office answered our offseason prayers by getting the veteran swingman more help offensively in the form of Gordon and Anderson, while the coaching staff simply asked Ariza to do what he does best. That refocusing of one of the Rockets’ top players has been an important key to the remarkable and exciting bounce-back year in Houston.