Despite not a minute of basketball being played yet, many in the NBA community have already voiced their doubts about the Rockets’ title chances due to the loss of reliable veteran Trevor Ariza.
While replacing him with the lesser known James Ennis III will certainly be felt, it shouldn’t be near as detrimental as much of the national media makes it seem (honestly, if Zach Lowe doesn’t write this wonderful piece on Ariza in May, this is likely a non-story, but as Lowe goes, so too does the nation.)
Don’t get me wrong. Ariza is a stud. Without his leadership and intangibles, it’s likely the Rockets don’t reach the same heights they have in recent years. However, with that said, considering the Rockets went 14-1 without the 33-year-old in the lineup this past season, it’s fair to say the outcry over losing his on-court production to Ennis is overblown. Ariza was part of the Rockets’ winning recipe this past year, but he was far from a key ingredient.
The main reason many deem Ennis a downgrade over Ariza is his inferior outside shooting. While Ennis did shoot a lowly 33.3 percent from deep this past season compared to Ariza’s 36.8 percent, the discrepancy isn’t as large as it seems.
Last season, while Ariza was getting open looks right on the money from two future Hall-of-Fame guards, Ennis was receiving ill-timed passes outside his shot pocket from a slew of fringe-NBA playmakers. During his tenures in Detroit and Memphis this past season, both Mike Conley and Reggie Jackson were dealing with serious injuries, forcing Ennis to play with the Kobi Simmons and Dwight Buycks of the world. It’s fair to say the quality of his looks this past year aren’t reflective of what he’d normally be getting— let alone the what he’ll get in Houston.
To get a better analog of what kind of shooter Ennis is, one should look at his percentages from 2016-17, as it was his last extended stretch of play with a quality point guard in Conley. In that season, Ennis shot 37 percent from three and 41 percent on threes constituted as “wide-open”. Considering only 39 percent of Ennis’ offense this past season was open or wide-open threes, versus Ariza’s 60 percent, it seems intuitive Ennis’ shooting returns to form in Houston.
The other part of the “3-and-D” archetype Ennis needs to fill isn’t near as much of a worry. Since both Ennis and Ariza match up with the top offensive threat on the other team each night, neither bares out incredible in isolation defense from a tracking perspective. But because the Rockets’ switch so much, and Ennis figures to be their stopper this coming season, that isolation defense is the key area to look at.
Both players fell between the 30th and 40th percentile for defensive points per possession in isolation last year, so it doesn’t appear Ennis will be a downgrade in that regard. That, mixed with the Grizzlies defense being four points better with him on the floor this past year, justifies his claim that he “hangs [his] hat on defense first”.
Besides shooting and defense, there is a multitude of other reasons Ennis should slide in well for Ariza, with youth being the main one. At five years younger and naturally more athletic, Ennis is a larger threat in transition than Ariza ever was.
During his Memphis stint this past year, Ennis finished in the 95th percentile for transition offense (to Ariza’s 73rd). Per Second Spectrum, Houston is coming off a season where they ranked first for transition offense, making Ennis a natural fit.
Additionally, Ennis’ youth should prevent him from wearing down in the playoffs as Ariza appeared to last season when his three-point percentage fell to 28 percent, including 20 percent in the Warriors series. In fact, Ariza’s been borderline awful offensively in two of the last three postseasons. Furthermore, some reports suggest Ennis could play a reserve role this year, or at the very least, be part of a rotating starters group depending on match up, saving him from the 33+ minutes per-night load Ariza bore.
This should keep Ennis fresh for the playoffs when his role should theoretically increase, as certain Rockets players’ defensive limitations will likely keep them off the court in May and June.
Lastly, Ennis is entering the perfect situation to maximize his skillset. He’s always struggled as a creator, and yet, ran pick-and-rolls 2.5 times as often as Ariza did this past season. In Houston, Ennis’s role will be as simple as it gets: cuts, transition leak-outs, and more corner threes than he can dream of. It’d be a surprise if he doesn’t thrive.
It seems as though Ennis will have a slightly smaller role than Ariza, so the trade-off likely isn’t one-to-one. However, expect Ennis to bring much of what Ariza did— if not all of it. The Rockets quietly are.
James Ennis has created a buzz in the first couple of days of Rockets camp. “Having energy is a talent,” Mike D’Antoni says. They love how hard Ennis plays and runs the floor. Rockets quietly don’t believe that Ennis is much of a downgrade, if at all, from Trevor Ariza.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) September 27, 2018