Trevor Ariza finds perfect fit with Houston Rockets

NBA.com Global on Mar 16, 2018 08:07 AM
Trevor Ariza finds perfect fit with Houston Rockets
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 6: Trevor Ariza #1 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 6, 2018 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Layne Murdoch Sr./NBAE via Getty Images)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Trevor Ariza didn’t get to the NBA by just standing out there to shoot.

He doesn’t even particularly like standing out there to shoot, since it comes at the expense of other, more active and creative maneuvers on the basketball court -- as his 33rd birthday approaches -- that he still enjoys.

But if standing out there to shoot is what’s required in Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, then that’s what Ariza is going to do.

Because he and his teammates are having too much fun this way. They put their stretch of 22 victories in the past 24 games on the line again Thursday (Friday, PHL time) against the LA Clippers.

“One thing I know, these guys are hungry for something,” Ariza said the other day, not just of the All-Hall (of Fame, in time) backcourt of James Harden and Chris Paul but of the squad overall.

“They’re hungry to win a championship. And there’s really no ego there. We’re able to communicate -- I think communication is always the biggest thing allowing you to take that next step. And we’re having fun. We don’t feel pressure, we just go out and play.”

Ariza, on a team laden with veterans, is one of Houston’s most reliable rudders. Fourteen seasons and 929 regular-season games into a career that got off to a shaky start -- the No. 43 pick in the 2004 Draft, by a losing New York Knicks team -- Ariza is a constant for the Rockets.

With Harden and Clint Capela, Ariza is one of three players whose run with the franchise pre-dates D’Antoni’s arrival in 2015. But then, Ariza pre- or post-dates a lot of coaches’ arrivals -- he has played for 12 of them, from Lenny Wilkens and Larry Brown early in his career, through Stan Van Gundy and Rick Adelman, to Kevin McHale and D’Antoni.

Born in Miami, raised in Los Angeles, Ariza has changed teams six times. And changed his game considerably in the process.

How Ariza played when he reached the NBA compared to now reflects the evolution of the league’s prevailing offensive strategies.

In his first four seasons, divvied up between the Knicks, Magic and Lakers, Ariza used his quickness and his lean, 6'8", 215-pound frame to slash to the basket or shoot from inside the opponent’s defense. Only 3.8 percent of his field-goal attempts came from outside the arc; nearly one quarter of his shots were the “long two's” now considered so abhorrent.

Ariza shot them at a poor rate (33.9 percent) but at least he was more accurate there than he was on three-pointers (20.9).

Compare that to Ariza’s last four seasons, all in Houston (with the past three under D’Antoni). Nearly two-thirds of his shots (64.4 percent) have been three-pointers. His long twos are down to 5.5 percent, and 87 percent of his field-goal attempts come either from three-point range or in the restricted area.

The game has evolved and Ariza has adapted.

“He’s been about the same as he’s always been,” D’Antoni said. “Which is good, I’m definitely not complaining. He might be shooting it a little better this year. Maybe making a few more drives to the basket, getting a little more comfortable with what we do.”

Ariza has occasionally been putting the ball on the floor and attacking to counter the perimeter-focused resistance Houston faces. That anyone has even noticed, and considers it a new wrinkle, amuses Ariza, because he always had that as part of his game.

“When I first got into the NBA, that’s what I was pretty good at, getting to the basket,” he said. “As my career played on, I developed a jump shot. I’m just trying to do what my teammates need me to do. The defense takes away certain things, so in order to be successful and help my team, I have to do other things.”

Like a lot of players new to D’Antoni’s style, Ariza had to dial up his willingness to shoot the ball. That’s a mindset that often doesn’t come naturally to guys who haven’t traditionally been first or second scoring options.

“Just being aggressive is the main thing,” Ariza said. “One hundred percent you’ve got to be aggressive. When you’re not aggressive, you won’t help this team at all. It messes up the whole flow.”

Said D’Antoni: “It takes a little bit -- even Chris Paul is going through that process. To catch and shoot takes a pretty quick trigger.”

At 12.1 points and 9.7 field-goal attempts per game, Ariza is Houston’s No. 5 scorer. As a 3-and-D guy, the latter is a little more important than the former. His offensive (113.3) and defensive (105) ratings are solid -- and he flexed new skills as a back-seat singer in one of Paul’s State Farm commercials -- but Ariza’s efficiency ratings have him pegged as a below-average NBA player the past four seasons.

That’s one area in which the analytics-devoted Rockets might quibble with the numbers. Ariza has started all 54 games this season and is averaging 34.6 minutes.

“Trevor’s a blue-collar player who does everything,” veteran big man Nene said. “He can defend, he can pass, he can shoot it well. He can do multiple things in a game, and of course the way he deals with the players is very important. He is open to anyone in here. Everybody likes him, he’s a leader and he makes everybody better.”

Here’s a for-instance: D’Antoni credited the Rockets’ veterans, Ariza among them, for making sure bad habits didn’t creep in during the team’s recent 17-game winning streak. Coaches often dread such streaks, because it’s harder to bend players’ ears without a few teachable-moment losses.

Not these days, though.

“If we’re not setting the right picks or boxing out,” D’Antoni said, “before they even get back to the bench, they’ve already discussed it and got it.”

Said Ariza, who won a championship ring with the Lakers in 2009 and is hoping for a second this spring: “We know how to police ourselves. He lets us be creative. He lets us do our thing. And he’s there for reinforcement, the staff’s there for reinforcement. We appreciate it. We do our best not to let him down. That’s the benefit of having a veteran team.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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