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Rockets season in review: Trevor Ariza

Ariza was better this postseason than last, but the Spurs still found a way to exploit his offensive shortcomings.

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

For several seasons now, since his return to the Rockets, we here at TDS having been pushing for a reduction in Trevor Ariza’s minutes and his responsibility. The 31-year-old Ariza really started looking his age and of 13 NBA seasons last year in the playoffs against Golden State, and it was imperative that the Rockets brought in some help. You love Ariza as a player, but not as a second option, which he essentially was on the previous year’s Houston team.

So Daryl Morey went out and picked up several offensive contributors in Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Lou Williams, with designs on lightening the load for his aging 3-and-D wing, and it seems to have helped.

Ariza did end up playing roughly the same amount of minutes this year he had in the previous two Rockets seasons (he dropped from 35 to 34), but his responsibility on the offensive side of the ball lessened noticeably. As a result, his defense, which had slipped last season, returned to effective levels.

Arzia’s shots per game fell from 10.6 to 10, and the vast majority of those were spot-up threes created off of dribble penetration, and his points per game dropped a full mark from 12.7 to 11.7.

But on the defensive side of the ball, Ariza finished with a defensive plus-minus of +1.0, a huge lift from the decidedly mediocre +0.3 he had last season. He also continued to be versatile, moving from small forward to defending power forwards in Mike D’Antoni’s small ball lineups with equal effectiveness.

We also didn’t see the same type of slippage in the postseason. Last year, Ariza’s dead legs resulted in an abominable offensive shooting performance in the playoffs (6 points per game, 25 percent shooting from the field, 14 percent from deep). This year, however, Ariza’s playoffs were more in line with his regular season performance, as he averaged 10.7 points per playoff game, to go along with 42 percent shooting from the field and 37 percent from deep.

But this year’s postseason also did something else for Ariza. It reaffirmed the need for an upgrade at the small forward position. One of the keys to the San Antonio Spurs knocking the Rockets out in 6 games was their ability to force the ball into Ariza’s hands and out of the hands of more dynamic playmakers Gordon and Williams.

The Spurs mostly shut down the Rockets ancillary playmakers, so Houston ended up in the same position as last season: with Ariza as their secondary offensive option.

That was good for Trevor’s individual offensive numbers, as he averaged 14.5 points per game in the series, but it was bad for the Rockets’ fortunes as a whole. Too often we saw Ariza driving to the hoop with the shot clock running down, looking to make something happen in desperation. For all that Ariza does well, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about him over these past three seasons, it’s that he’s simply not a playmaker.

The Spurs’ ability to exploit that weakness on the Rockets explains Daryl Morey’s reported interest in Danilo Gallinari this offseason. Gallinari’s offensive repertoire would be a huge upgrade from Ariza, eliminating the obvious weakness in the Rockets’ otherwise well-oiled offensive machine that was so expertly exploited by Gregg Popovich. It also explains their subsequent desire to swing a trade for the suddenly available Paul George, who would be an even better fit in H-town than Gallinari.

Ariza will also be 32 this season, and his contract with the Rockets is winding down. He’ll be on his final year this season at just a $7 million salary, and combine his age and wear and tear with that expiring deal and the Rockets’ obvious desire to make some serious offensive upgrades, and you can’t help but feel that Ariza’s days in Houston are about to be numbered.