Amid the Wizards’ best run in five seasons, the young backcourt pair of John Wall and Bradley Beal routinely steal the show – and for good reason. But there’s also a 12-year journeyman in the background who’s quietly having a career year and helping to not only get Washington to the playoffs, but also push the Wizards past the first round for the first time in nearly a decade.
While Wall gains notoriety for his improved jump shot, refined leadership and winning the dunk contest (whether we like it or not), Beal leaves fans intrigued by way of his 17 points per game as just a 20-year-old sophomore. Add that excitement surrounding Washington’s budding superstars to a likely playoff trip next month and forward Trevor Ariza is easily lost in the shadows.
Despite not receiving a mid-season trip to New Orleans, or being praised with Player of the Week hardware, Ariza serves as the Wizards’ glue. And without him, this team isn’t keeping their head above .500 or remaining in contention of a feasible playoff seed.
Although the Wizards have been statistically below-average on offense this season (105.2 offensive efficiency), it hasn’t been a result of Ariza’s lack of production. In fact, quite the contrary. Ariza has been one of the Wizards’ most lethal weapons on offense this season, attempting a career-high six three-point field goals per game and, more importantly, knocking down a career-high 43 percent of them, making Ariza a top-12 shooter in the league from long range.
And while more than half of Ariza’s shots come from beyond the arc, he’s been efficient inside as well, hitting 49 percent from the field and 78 percent from the free throw line. His .598 true shooting percentage is the best he’s seen since he entered the league in 2004.
In effort to avoid the full-blown man-crush, we can’t ignore the frustrations in Ariza’s game as well, as he’s prone to a couple turnovers here and there and some questionable decision making when he puts the ball on the floor. Thankfully, however, this team doesn’t require Ariza to create his own offense, thus creating tolerance for the occasional Ariza-ism.
From the opposition’s perspective, Ariza has commanded respect for his offense, while fans have learned to trust it. When Wall drives the lane in an attempt to dice the defense, opposing teams know they can’t leave Ariza alone outside. They know as well as fans do that Ariza’s shots are falling.
Much of the Wizards’ success this season has been a direct result of better team defense. When the team is approaching defense with energy and effort, not only do we see relative numbers such as a 104.5 defensive rating, good for ninth-best in the league, but also an increased win percentage.
Spoiler alert: Ariza is arguably the Wizards’ best defender.
Throughout his career, Ariza has made a name for himself on defense. Despite not being the quickest wing on the court, Ariza possesses good length at 6’8”, he plays with great instincts and he has an understanding of how to manipulate and intercept passing lanes. His nearly two steals per game this season, along with a 2.7-percent steal percentage are both indicative of his defensive prowess and the Wizards overall efficiency on defense.
The Other Stuff
When Nene went down with a sprained MCL last week, I mentioned the damaging effect it would have on the Wizards, as they’d be forced to play at least six weeks without their best facilitator and offensive pipeline.
While he may not have the usage percentage or assist numbers of Nene, Ariza’s spot-up shooting and ability on defense has made the Wizards better as a unit. His outside shooting helps clear lanes for a slashing John Wall, his sneaky corner campings can draw a defender and create better looks for Bradley Beal (who’s converting a decent clip himself at better than 41 percent) and his defense can lead effective transition, while at the same time stoking the team’s fire on that side of the ball.
It’s easy to look at Ariza’s offensive numbers this season and label him nothing more than a good range shooter. But when you watch his game, when you note his team-high 6.9 nERD, when you see him logging 36 minutes every night and complementing his team’s young superstars with dependability, reliability and savvy defensive work, you get a clear picture of just how important Ariza is in Washington.
I can remember not long ago - right around the start of the season - when fans viewed Ariza as more or less a warm body who was sometimes good for a steal, sometimes a decent basket or two. But since then, Ariza’s stock has soared. He went from being just another guy, to a decent role player, to working his way into the discussion of valuable trade chips, to ultimately becoming a prized possession on a thriving playoff contender - all in a matter of a few months.
In the final year of his deal, and with just a little over a month before playoff time, the Wizards need to seriously consider re-signing Ariza to be a part of their near future. As the season draws to a close and the Wizards look to make waves in early May, Ariza’s market value will only continue to rise. Signing him now would not only save the Wizards a few bucks, but also keep the team’s hidden pillar intact for the next few years.