Trevor Ariza probably won’t win any 3-point shooting contests any time soon and his release won’t remind you of Larry Bird or Stephen Curry, but when you consider how far he’s come since he first entered the league, it’s pretty astounding how many shots he’s buried from deep in his career (1008 to be exact). This season, he appears to be relishing a role in the Houston Rockets offense that is less reliant on total shot attempts and more focused on shots from 3. The result is Ariza’s most efficient offensive season to date.
Ariza’s 3-point shooting this season has helped the Rockets (13-7) off to a completely different start than last year. As you scroll up and down ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) list, the names near the top of the list don’t come as much of a surprise. A name that you may not have expected in the top 15 of RPM, or maybe the 100 for that matter, considering he was 117th last year, is that of Ariza.
RPM less than two months into the season is a small sample, but having closely watched both Ariza and Mike D’Antoni when they were with the New York Knicks, Ariza gives D’Antoni’s system a critical dimension. Those who have watched Ariza’s entire career understand the ups and downs he’s had coming into the league as a defensive-minded player who literally couldn’t make a wide open jump shot. In fact, Ariza didn’t even attempt more than one 3-pointer per game until 2008-09 with the Los Angeles Lakers, his fourth year in the league and his third organization.
“When you draft a player at the age of 19, you project what he will be by the age of 24,” NBA TV Analyst Isiah Thomas told The Step Back. Thomas, who drafted Ariza in 2004 as President of the Knicks, says it takes great focus and perseverance to transform into a shot maker, something he saw early in Ariza.
“His mechanics demonstrated his great work ethic. Shooting requires repetition, and he had the skill set and determination to continue. Against everything Trevor was faced with, he never quit – instead he kept going and today he is a champion and one of the best defenders in the league because of his perseverance and determination.”
Ariza’s hot start has a lot to do with how he complements James Harden, as Harden continues to undercut the criticism of himself from previous seasons as a player who doesn’t make his teammates better.
Ariza has been able to feast off Harden’s ability to get into the lane and force the defense to collapse in D’Antoni’s vaunted spread, pick-and-roll offense that so many teams have adapted over the past decade. Harden, who leads the league in assists (11.8), including 13 in a huge win in Golden State on Thursday, has done nothing short of a masterful job orchestrating the offense and spreading the wealth making all his teammates better, not just Ariza, who Harden is passing to 20 percent of the time. Ariza has been able to feast on mainly open threes from the right corner from many skip passes to the weak side off of Harden’s drives.
In fact, Ariza and Ryan Anderson are almost mirror images in terms of making threes from both sides of the floor as Anderson has been terrific playing off Harden’s penetration on the strong side in terms of production and favor from Harden and combine for a lethal “pick your poison” perimeter presence for Harden. Anderson is the recipient of a team-leading 15.8 passes per game from Harden and the combination of Ariza (12.8 passes), Anderson and center Clint Capela (9.5 pass) account for 7.2 of Harden’s 11.8 assists per game.
One element of the offense that also can’t go unnoticed is the upgrade that Eric Gordon has been to the Rockets over Ty Lawson. Gordon is shooting 34.6 percent in his catch-and-shoot situations this year which account for about 39 percent of his three point attempts. This time last year Lawson was shooting just 27 percent from 3 in similar spot-up situations. Ariza has always been a capable spot-up threat with Harden penetrating, but adding the rim-rolling of Capela with the shooting of Anderson and Gordon has stretched opposing defenses even further, leaving more space for Ariza.
The Rockets have quickly gelled by combining great spot shooters around Harden, but critics will always point to the defensive side of the ball when talking about a D’Antoni-coached team. When looking into RPM the critics would be justified and it appears that Ariza’s reputation for being an elite defender, which Thomas points out, may be taking a bit of a hit. Ariza’s Defensive RPM of 0.90 is just 14th among small forwards and ranks him just 82nd in the NBA overall. As he’s aged he has declined on that side of the ball but he’s still an above average defender and his size and versatility make him extremely important to the Rockets’ defense.
The Rockets currently sit fourth in the NBA’s Western Conference standings and third offensive rating (112.9) and are first in both three point attempts (37.0) and three pointers made (14.0) per game. They are also tied for fourth in the NBA in assists per game as a team (24.3), which is a 9.3% leap from a year ago. While their proficiency from 3 has been evident, they are also scoring on a high percentage from 2-point range, thanks in large part to Harden’s driving ability.
The Rockets offensive balance depends on the shooting ability of their perimeter players and it would seem that Ariza — now one of the game’s most efficient and productive perimeter threats — and the Rockets have quickly become one of the most balanced offensive attacks because of it.