Friday, July 3, 2009

"The Ariza Situation"

Trevor Ariza is gone now, no longer for me to worry about, but I still will think about him, for what could have been and what will be. I wish Ariza had been retained by the Lakers, obviously; he has a fan-friendly style, the city loved and embraced him, he was a perfect fit for the team, and he had his fingerprints all over this championship season. He knocked down open threes (48 percent in the playoffs), wreaked havoc on defense, and made plays with his athleticism in the open-court. Role players usually do the small things, the things that go unnoticed to the untrained eye (like another Lakers small forward who won championships, Rick Fox), but Ariza's contributions were striking, even if you sit aside those two momentous steals in the Denver series: There was rarely a time when you forgot he was on the court, which is perhaps the greatest compliment one can give him.

But with that being said, when news broke that he was leaning towards leaving the Lakers over hurt feelings, I was disappointed but not devastated. Ariza is a good player, but not an indispensable one: As Kenny Smith pointed out on TNT the night the Lakers won the championship (in discussing the upcoming free agent scenario surrounding Odom and Ariza), what, really, is the difference between Ariza and Mickael Pietrus? Or for that matter, I'll argue, Shane Battier, James Posey, or Bruce Bowen in his day? The Lakers probably don't win the championship without Ariza this year, but mostly because they traded Radmanovic during the season, leaving them with only one other small forward with a pulse (Walton) and an eternally struggling Vujacic, who lost the crunch-time minutes he thrived on to the returned and improved Ariza. Remember that they made the Finals last season virtually without Ariza, and may have won the whole damn 'chip with a healthy Bynum. You could have replaced him this year with any of the aforementioned defensive specializing/three-point shooting swing men, and they'd have been fine. Going forward, they could have spent that mid-level exception on Josh Childress, or Gerald Green, or Kleiza, or Marquis Daniels, or Quinton Ross, or Jamario Moon, or Rodney Carney, or Desmond Mason, or Keith Bogans, or Kareem Rush, or Matt Barnes, or Ime Udoka...see what I mean? I don't like any of those guys more than I like Ariza for this team, or even at all, but how much does it really matter? They all have their strengths as small forwards and they're all going to look better playing with Kobe Bryant.

Not to go all Simmons on you (not that there is anything wrong with that), but my dad argued otherwise, suggesting that the Lakers should've done whatever it took to keep Ariza around (among other things). In a move I rarely make, I brought up statistics, pointing out that Ariza averaged only nine points during the regular season and eleven in the playoffs, as a means of putting his virtual worth in perspective. My father shot back with the same argument I often make: basically, that stats are about context. He's right: I think basketball stats are totally subjective, that too much is made of them in a sport in which there is too much they do not account for. But I do not think they are meaningless, and in Trevor's case I think they pretty much are what they are. Roughly half of Ariza's value (his three point-shooting) is dictated by others: He feasts on the open threes made possible for him by the lack of defensive attention he receives on an offensive juggernaut featuring Kobe Bryant. Rarely does he create his own offense in the half court - occasionally he'll get chased off of the three point line and throw in an awkward runner or soar in for a dunk, but that's about it. The points he gets from his defense will still be there, but he is not a true offensive player.

He is a dependent offensive player; how would he do if he had to fend for himself? If this were a situation in which a gifted offensive player were just stuck in a numbers crunch, or down in the pecking order, then that would be one thing, and Ariza's value would be greater. You'd think much longer about just letting him go. But this is not that case, and we'll see how Ariza does now on a Houston squad that has been devastated by injuries and the departure of its most dependable player, the new Laker Artest.

With more minutes, more touches, and more opportunities to score, I suppose he will up his point average about five points, basing that estimate off of the fact that even Battier averaged 14 per in 40 minutes a game for the 2002 Grizzlies - and like those Grizzlies, Houston will suck. This is not a knock against Ariza - most of the players in the league are or would be useless on bad teams. Ariza excels in that he possesses the kind of intangibles that can help a team on the very verge become a champion, even more so than most other role players do. But he is simply not someone who will guarantee you a ring, if there is such an entity, or bring you a great deal closer by himself, so you don't have to kill yourself to make sure he goes or stays. Role players are generally interchangeable, even those of the highest order, like the talented Ariza. Instead of paying them more than they are worth, you can just sort their minutes out in a different way and/or or add someone else who can contribute roughly the same in overall quality. I understand that sometimes you need what you need and not something else, but no team is perfect, anyway.

What the Lakers will get is Artest, who can no longer guard quick guys off the dribble like Ariza could, but is a big, burly son of a gun who won't get thrown around by the Carmelo's of the world, like our lithe wings were in the conference finals this year. If there is anyone who can tame Artest's suspect shot selection and ego on offense and get him to become the player of his destiny it is Phil Jackson, in what will be the last great test of his career. If the Zenmaster can pull it off, if he can confine Artest within the boundaries of the triangle, L.A.'s ceiling becomes higher than it was with Ariza. Of course those are "if's" that will have to be paid great attention to, while we already knew what we had in Ariza. But I suspect that with teams like San Antonio armoring up this summer, in preparation for the ultimate battle, the Lakers may have needed to do some beefing up, too.

They have, and now we'll just have to wait and see what happens. With all of it.

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