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Rockets 2017-2018 player previews: Trevor Ariza

Is this the year the Rockets finally cut back on Ariza’s minutes?

NBA: Preseason-Shanghai Sharks at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been waiting for a reduction in minutes for Trevor Ariza for two seasons now. I expected it to happen last year, but it didn’t quite finish out that way. Ariza’s minutes per game differential, while lower than the season before, was pretty negligible. He dropped from 35.3 in 2015-2016 to 34.7 in 2016-2017. He played in just one less game.

And though we saw somewhat of a bounce-back year in terms of Trev’s defensive efficiency, how much longer is that going to last? After a below-average season defending in 2015-2016, Ariza returned to positive defender status this past year. But his defensive RPM of +1.08 was just barely in the top 25 of small forwards.

He still racks up a lot of steals, finishing with 1.8 per game, good enough for sixth in the NBA, and his versatility is still off the charts. Ariza can comfortably defend just about anyone at the two, three, or four. But his athleticism has noticeably slipped as the 32-year-old heads into his 14th season in the Association. That’s a lot of tread on the tires of a guy who guards the opposition’s best player many nights.

It took a noticeable effect on his offensive game last year. Despite the impressive offense the Rockets had as a whole, Ariza slipped in just about every measurable offensive metric. His points per game dropped from 12.7 to 11.7. His field goal percentage dropped from 41.6 percent to 40.9 percent. His three-point percentage drop was more pronounced, dipping to 34.4 percent from 37.1 percent the season before. Ariza’s offensive RPM dropped to a +0.86, his lowest in 5 years.

The good news is that the Rockets appear better equipped than ever before to spell Ariza as needed and keep him fresh for the long haul. He visibly ran out of gas last season against San Antonio, as the Spurs kept forcing him into creating, and the year prior against Golden State, when his legs disappeared completely and he couldn’t shoot his way out of a wet paper bag.

The Rockets signed several long and rugged forwards in P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, that are capable of doing many of the same things Ariza can. They have a young, up-and-comer in Troy Williams who can provide some hops and an offensive spark. The Rockets have options other than trotting Ariza out for 35 minutes every night.

To that end, let’s hope head coach Mike D’Antoni uses the Rockets’ newfound depth to cut Ariza’s minutes a little closer to 30. Just that slight dip would go a long way to keeping the veteran fresh, and the Rockets no longer have to suffer through a large gap in versatility or performance by giving Trev an extra breather.

So far in the preseason, it appears to be happening. In the Rockets’ four gameS thus far, which D’Antoni has used as full dress rehearsals for the regular season, Ariza has averaged 29 minutes per game. It’s important to note a few of those games were blowouts, so the coach may have sat his starters little earlier than he would have in a close game, but we’d still be looking at a minutes dip.

And so far, Ariza has looked good. He’s shooting the ball extremely well, going a scorching 17-30 from deep thus far, and looks like he’s relaxed, rested, and having fun.

But as we all know, 82 games is a long and arduous season, so keeping Ariza in that state is imperative to Houston’s success. They’re obviously a better team when he’s playing well, so keeping the Rockets’ main three-and-D man both happy and healthy throughout the season and into the playoffs, should be one of the top focuses of D’Antoni’s to-do list.