Trevor Ariza: The Time is Now

i Trevor Ariza: The Time is Now post image

At this late stage in the season, teams’ identities are more or less known. No one really expects many surprises to occur before the playoffs begin. Of course, outside of the few front runners, every other playoff team is actually hoping that surprises will occur. That is the only chance that non-favorites have of surpassing expectations. This means that, barring unfortunate injuries, the script that most teams hope will be written is that an underused or underachieving player catches lightning in a bottle and proceeds to disrupt predictions.

On the Houston Rockets, the list of these candidates is slim. While James Harden is certainly the most important player, it’s a bit greedy, and probably unrealistic, to hope that he plays even more out of his skull than he currently is. Due to injuries, some might say that Dwight Howard has a chance to change the course of the playoffs a bit, but I think this blog has already beaten to death where Dwight’s ceiling is (probably behind him) and what he takes off the table (0.76 PPP on post ups) when he’s in the game. Instead, I propose that the Rockets’ potential difference maker is Trevor Ariza. Out of all the players that will receive significant playing time in the playoffs, he is the one whose ceiling is probably furthest away from what we’ve seen this regular season.

That Ariza is going to play, and play a lot, is a given. He currently ranks 3rd in the league in minutes per game, and history shows that all teams, particularly the Rockets, play fewer players more minutes in the playoffs. Multiple 40+ minute games for Ariza is going to be the norm. Ariza’s role is also pretty cut and dry; he’s the Rockets primary 3-and-D wing. He’s a little older than the prototype at that “position,” but he makes up for his declining athleticism on defense with above-average size and veteran savvy.

On offense, Ariza attempts the most 3s (521 attempts) on the team that attempts the most 3s in the league. Harden is neck-and-neck with Ariza in terms of attempts, but the next highest active player is Jason Terry at only 295. Given the Rockets’ identity, Ariza’s playing time, and his role, it’s easy to recognize how important he is. This season, however, he’s fared poorly at performing the “3” part of his role. Take a look at this graph.

Ariza's 3PA and 3P% per 100 possessions

Ariza’s 3PA and 3P% per 100 possessions

This chart shows Ariza’s 3-point activity over the years, per 100 possessions. Expectedly, his 3-point attempts have increased as his 3-and-D role has become more solidified. His 3-point shooting percentage has also increased steadily… until this year. While he shot over 40% at over eight attempts last year, this year he’s shooting roughly 34% but taking even more 3s (over nine). Not exactly great performance for such a key player.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike Howard, Ariza’s role is very much skill based, meaning it’s realistic that he can improve what he needs to do. Furthermore, we know what the ceiling on his three-point shooting is (last year), and it’s very good. Just for the lulz, I calculated what would have happened this year if Trevor Ariza were replaced by Robo Ariza. The only difference between Trevor and Robo is that Robo always shoots 40.7% (Trevor’s tally last year) on three-point attempts. If Robo had taken every shot that Trevor did this year, the changed point differentials of each game would have netted the Rockets three more wins. Those wins would have come against the Spurs, Wizards, and Grizzlies.

While this exercise might be kind of fun in a vacuum, it’s pretty pointless because we don’t live in a vacuum. But it does show, I hope, how a couple of shots can potentially swing important games. On the Rockets, the player most likely to be in position to take those shots is Trevor Ariza. If he can snatch lightning in a bottle and reclaim his shooting ceiling, just for a couple of months, the Rockets have a chance to disrupt the playoffs’ script.

About the author: Richard Li is an independent researcher and consultant. He likes numbers and pictures.

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