Back in late September, following an impressive training camp by James Ennis, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported that the Rockets quietly started to believe that Ennis mightn’t be much of a downgrade from Trevor Ariza—if he was one at all. Despite Ennis’ promising camp, this claim was quickly dismissed by critics who heavily valued the steadfast production and professionalism Ariza had brought to the table the previous four years. Then, when the team started 1-5, those critics grew louder.
However, with the Rockets finally hitting their stride and James Ennis fitting right in, it seems as good a time as ever to revisit those muted September whispers. (Especially with speculation circling that suggests the Rockets’ could even part ways with a first-rounder to free Ariza from the sputtering Suns).
Comparing Ennis to Ariza so far this season is actually a pretty clear win for the Rockets’ bet on their system’s ability to plug holes at a lesser value. While Ennis is playing less due to the talent disparity on their respective rosters, his per-minute production has been fairly similar to Ariza’s.
Additionally, Ennis has been far more efficient, shooting 10-percent better from the field (four percent better from three) with a turnover rate half of Ariza’s. In fact, his Real Plus-Minus (RPM), a catch-all statistic used to measure a players impact on the court versus off of it, blows Ariza’s out of the water.
Ex-Rockets Real Plus-Minus (RPM):— Steve Ilardi (@dr_ilardi) November 20, 2018
Trevor Ariza -2.43
Mbah a Moute -0.93
New Rockets RPM:
James Ennis +0.51
Gary Clark +0.05
However, it’s far from fair to judge Ariza’s current ability through this lens considering the tire-fire that has masqueraded as the Phoenix Suns this season. Just like Ennis, Ariza is a support player; his performance level largely dependent upon the players around him. Without solid playmaking at the guard spot in Phoenix, Ariza’s been forced to create more than his skillset is capable of. This oversized role is the main reason his offensive efficiency has plummeted from the 85th percentile last season to 41st this year (per Synergy Sports).
For this reason, it’s far more apt to compare Ennis’ year to Ariza’s 2017-18 season, as the roles and roster are largely the same. When one does this, Houston’s system starts to shine through.
Since Ennis dealt with injuries to start the year, he is currently averaging 8 fewer minutes than Ariza did last season. However, Ennis’ per-36-minute statistics of 12 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist on 40 percent from three and 48 percent from the field are basically a wash with Ariza’s per-minute production a year earlier, only they’re slightly more efficient.
Digging a little deeper, opposing teams are testing whether Houston’s new shooters can beat them the same way last season’s crew did, so Ennis is getting almost 10 percent more shots deemed as “open” or “wide open” than Ariza did last season in Houston. So it is possible Ennis’ efficiency normalizes once teams begin to adjust.
But with transition and spot ups constituting around 70 percent of both Ariza and Ennis’ shot attempts, their per-36 numbers essentially the same, their “jump shots in the half court” efficiency falling within 1 percentile of one another, and their Player Efficiency Rating’s (PER) falling within 0.1 of one another, it’s honestly uncanny how similarly they fit in with Houston’s system.
Outside of an early defensive learning curve and a few-too-many out-of-control offensive possessions, Ennis has truly been Ariza-lite thus far in Houston.
While Ennis is certainly outplaying the Phoenix iteration of Ariza, the downgrade in defense and reliable tertiary creation still gives Ariza the slight edge as a possible fit in Houston. But for 1/7th the cost, Ennis is undeniably the better value player.
Either way, if the aforementioned speculation of a possible Ariza return is rooted in any truth, and the Rockets’ can bolster both of the menacing wings come the playoffs, that’s as formidable of a “3-and-D” rotation as any organization with a tight cap sheet can ask for.
It’s possible a first-round pick could get Ariza back in red as early as December 15, but if he and Phoenix continue at their current pace, the Rockets’ may not need to surrender a single asset for him to return home by the March 1 buyout deadline.
The way Ennis and the Rockets have played as of late, it’s only logical they wait to try to pull Ariza out of the bargain bin come late winter. Even if they do, he’ll have serious competition on the wing in James Ennis.
Those quiet September whispers from the Rockets are louder than ever now.