[NOTE: The 6th and 7th main body paragraphs contain links to four separate, critically related addenda.]
During Saturday night’s home opener, I counted five total possessions in which Trevor Ariza attempted to attack his defender off the dribble while squared up in a one-on-one scenario.
•Roughly the 3 minute mark in the 1st: He attempted to change directions, was unsuccessful, and had to pick up his dribble and pass.
•Roughly the 2 minute mark in the 2nd: He faked left and drove right, banking in an incredibly awkward jumper.
•Roughly the 2 minute mark of the 3rd: He faked right and drove baseline towards his left, lost body control and threw a bad pass, resulting in a turnover.
•Roughly the 7 minute mark in the 4th: He dribbled right, and spun back left, got trapped, and was bailed out by Greg Oden. This resulted in two free throws.
•Roughly the 5 minute mark in the 4th: He squared up and drove baseline left, resulting in a layup + foul.
While three of these possessions were technically 'successful', for analytical purposes, I think one would agree that on two of these circumstances, Ariza was the beneficiary of some incredibly good luck. The bank off the glass was extremely awkward and not reflective of any ability to pull up for the mid-range jumper.
Similarly, the possession against Oden was not a premeditated pump fake bait, as is utilized by many perimeter players, but rather a situation where Ariza simply got bailed out by a very undisciplined defender after losing his dribble. Only the baseline drive against Brandon Roy can be classified as a successful attack possession.
The aforementioned sequences are noteworthy in that they illustrate Ariza’s overall inability to create off the dribble in a one-on-one scenario. Two of the three situations in which he was technically ‘successful’ were not indicative of any actual ability with future predictive significance.
Why This is Relevant
Based on comments during the offseason, following his preseason struggles, and following the excitement of Saturday’s game, it is clear that there are extant expectations regarding Ariza which are incredibly unrealistic. If not reined in, this unbridled enthusiasm could quickly spiral into serious disappointment.
I found myself cringing last night as Bill and Clyde proffered their analysis during Ariza’s ongoing breakout performance. They mused about his potential to become “the man” and a “go-to scorer”. The entire episode was exemplary of the media’s role in perpetuating a set of highly misguided assumptions and misconceptions which have raised the expectations for Trevor Ariza to such unrealistic, unattainable heights.
Trevor Ariza will never become a primary 'go-to' option for a good team. This is simply due to the fact that he cannot create off the dribble and most likely will never develop this ability. He is a 'slasher', not a 'creator'.
That a perimeter player can almost never be considered a primary 'go-to' scorer without the ability to create off the dribble is so axiomatic that it should be taken as a fundamental truth.
Ariza's Other Weaknesses:
In addition to his inability to create, Ariza also:
•Is a poor finisher in heavy traffic
•Is a poor passer off the dribble
•Has poor body control in mid-air
•Often gets stuck in mid-air with nowhere to go
•Has not demonstrated any semblance of a mid-range game
•Struggles with the cross-over dribble against tight pressure defense
•Has no semblance of a post-up game
This above evaluation is not intended as an indictment of Ariza or even a value judgment of his worth as a player. This full disclosure is simply intended for the purpose of assessing the player’s capabilities and definitively debunking the preposterous prognostications currently in circulation regarding Ariza's future potential and expected growth trajectory.
Ariza's Current Play and Random Musings
Two things I have found to be both peculiar and of some interest:
1. Ariza was actually bringing the ball up as the point guard for a few possessions on Saturday night. He certainly has sufficient handles for this task, but unfortunately, as delineated already, not enough of a handle to do much more on his own once in the half-court.
This was of great interest as it is clear that Rick Adelman is in experimentation mode for this season. My sense is that there is a desire to play Aaron Brooks off of the ball in late game situations.
One must also assume that the staff, in order to assess the limits of Trevor’s potential, is hoping to throw before him as many challenges as possible. While I personally have assigned a ceiling to his potential, I also do feel that it is important to ascertain the limits of each player's capabilities. This is the year for experimentation.
2. I found it awfully humorous to see Ariza actually attempt to post up on numerous possessions in the first two games. Obviously, nothing came of this as he does not have the footwork to maneuver from such a stance. The notion was interesting though as it really confirms the above points regarding Adelman's mindset.
I think the coaching staff wants to give Ariza everything he can handle and let him determine his own destiny. On the basis of what I have seen in the tasks they are laying before him, it almost seems that the staff is treating Ariza like a high growth potential prospect. They want to give him every opportunity to develop as a player.
In addition, while Ariza has been struggling with turnovers and in finishing at the basket, I do expect improvement in these areas as the season progresses, and certainly upon the return of McGrady and Yao (if both healthy). Ariza has clearly been pressing in his new and expanded role.
Ariza is the Perfect Role Player for this Team.
Aside from its analytical utility, identifying Ariza’s inherent limitations serves to reveal and underscore the talents which he does possess and aids in the formation of realistic expectations.
Make no mistake, for the MLE, this signing was an absolute slam dunk and seems to be even better value than even I had initially concluded.
•Good defender – I have based this on Daryl Morey’s comment that Ariza is a top 5 wing defender as well as upon Trevor's reputation. I personally do not have large enough of a sample size to draw a conclusion on his abilities in this area, especially when 1 of the 3 games thus far includes a torching at the hands of Brandon Roy.
•Plays the passing lanes well – Not only does he get steals but he has the athleticism and speed to finish at the other end.
•Deadly shooter – It is becoming clear that his performance from last year’s playoffs was no fluke. Small sample size thus far, but Trevor is looking nearly automatic from long range.
•Some hints of pull-up ability – While we haven’t yet seen a mid-range game, we have seen Ariza attempt pull-up 3’s off the dribble. While not yet there, this shows that the capability for development of a mid-range pull-up game is there.
•Can dribble sufficiently – While he can’t break down a defender off the dribble, he is capable of comfortably handling the ball against light pressure and even bringing it up in certain situations.
•Can drive in both directions and change directions when not facing tight pressure - Trevor Ariza does have handles. This isn't Luther Head or Shandon Anderson we are discussing. He can dribble well with both hands and can even cross over and change directions. However, as established, his problem is dribbling against tight pressure and breaking down the defender.
•Very good 'slasher'
•“Out of space” rebounder -Aiza is what I would define as an “out of space” rebounder. This is that category of player that can grab loose balls and long rebounds. The Rockets have not had this type of player in this current era and it is my contention that this is one of the primary causes of our postseason struggles in past years. We simply got beat to too many loose balls by more athletic teams with more athletic players.
What intrigues me the most about Ariza are the early hints of the pull-up jumper in its infancy stages. This is the one big area in Ariza’s game where one can realistically hope for major development. We saw the awkward pull-up bank shot against Portland which wasn't really reflective of anything but luck. However, he has really surprised me with his fluidity in pulling up for 3's off the dribble. While he hasn't made them, his form and comfort level shows that there is potential for growth in this area.
Trevor has sufficient handles, athleticism, size, and shooting touch to really develop this facet of his offensive game. Similar to a Josh Howard, if evolved, I envision Ariza using his adequate handles to dribble around screens to pull up over his defender for mid-range jump-shots. Such an addition to his arsenal is not only reasonable and realistic, but would vastly amplify his overall offensive potency.
Most importantly, one can certainly expect Ariza’s effectiveness to increase when/if playing next to a healthy McGrady and Yao. There is currently no strong side offensive focal point on the court to capture the attention of the opposing defense. Each of our players is drawing equal attention thus mitigating Trevor's ability to 'slash'. A healthy McGrady/Yao would put increased pressure on the defense allowing Ariza to feast on slowly rotating defenders.
Trevor Ariza will most likely never be an All-Star or even a consistent ‘go-to’ scoring option. If we accept this and restrain our expectations, we can really appreciate this signing for its true worth.
Ariza has the room for growth to become a very lethal role player. At the time of the signing, I had put his ceiling at 15ppg. Upon seeing him, while I don't expect such output, I actually don’t think it is completely out of the realm of possibility that he could average 18-20ppg in this offense.
However, this production will come similarly to that of the prototypical ‘super’-role player, Shawn Marion, in that it will be through feeding off of other players and in playing within the team's offense.
It is highly unlikely that Trevor Ariza ever becomes a guy to whom one can merely hand the ball and ask to go to work against his defender.
But that’s ok.
We don’t need him for that.
He will have many more nights like Saturday where he explodes offensively. That will lead many to ask for and expect more.
That should not be the case.
At his salary, if he continues to do what he has been proven to be capable of, this signing seems to be yet another absolute steal for Daryl Morey.
Fans should recognize that if merely accepted for what he is, at his age, with his size, and existing skillset, Trevor Ariza is a tremendous building block for this franchise heading forward.