As summer priorities go, the Washington Wizards scored on one and missed on the other. Two days after they completed the signing of center Marcin Gortat, the Wizards were stunned on Saturday when small forward Trevor Ariza agreed to terms with the Houston Rockets.
Ariza’s departure spoils the Wizards’ plans of maintaining continuity after winning a playoff series for the first time in nine years. They were confident that they would be able to retain Ariza but knew there would be competition for his services.
The Wizards were limited with what they could offer Ariza, 29, because of possible luxury tax implications, yet still proposed a four-year contract worth $32 million, according to people with knowledge of the situation. They were confident that a modest raise from his $7.7 million salary last season and the chance to have a leadership role on a team that has two rising talents in John Wall and Bradley Beal would be enough to keep him around.
But Ariza opted to return to Houston for the same deal. Not only do the Rockets feature an all-star tandem in Dwight Howard and James Harden but his money would go further in Texas, where there is no state income tax and the cost of living is considerably less than the Washington area. Ariza’s deal is worth $8.6 million in its first year and declines in annual value after that. He will make $7.4 million in the final year.
“We’re disappointed,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said. “We made our very best offer. He elected to go elsewhere. We wish him the best.”
According to people with knowledge of the Wizards’ thinking, the team was unwilling to give Ariza the annual eight-figure salary that he demanded and believed the Rockets would’ve matched an offer had they chosen to go up to $9 million.
Ariza’s departure provides the Wizards with some financial flexibility going forward. The team is already budgeting for the summer of 2016, when Nene – due $26 million over the next two years – will come off the books, Beal will become a restricted free agent and District native and reigning league’s most valuable player Kevin Durant will enter the open market for the first time.
For now, the team has already been in communication with alternatives but it already had $10 million committed to the small forward position with Martell Webster and Otto Porter Jr., the third overall pick in the 2013 draft. Webster is currently sidelined with a herniated disk in his lower back and Porter was used sparingly last season.
Washington had made contingency plans if Ariza decided to leave but is leaning on the development of the 21-year-old Porter, especially since the Wizards don’t have the ability to sign a replacement such as two-time all-star Luol Deng. They could have gone over the salary cap to retain Ariza since they had Larry Bird rights, but now will shift their focus on keeping free agents Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Drew Gooden and Garrett Temple.
The salary cap next season is an all-time high of $63 million, yet but the Wizards already have $58 million in salary to seven players next year. They will have access to the mid-level exception, worth $5.3 million, and trade exemptions worth $1.3 million and $2 million from deals involving Emeka Okafor and Eric Maynor, respectively.
In his second season with the Wizards, Ariza averaged 14.4 points and shot 40.7 percent from the field. His perimeter defense and reliable shooting became indispensable. The only player on the roster with a championship ring, Ariza also organized a season-altering players’ only meeting in mid-November and planned other team gatherings throughout the season to help the Wizards have better team unity. At the end of the season, Ariza described his teammates as “brothers” and said it would be difficult to leave what he had built in two seasons in Washington.
The Wizards originally acquired Ariza in a pre-draft trade with New Orleans for the expiring contract of Rashard Lewis. Ariza had a challenging first season with the team and came off the bench behind Webster. He was nearly dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers for Caron Butler before Clippers owner Donald Sterling vetoed the deal. Initially upset after the team drafted Porter and signed Webster, Ariza snatched the starting job back from Webster and authored one of the finest seasons of his career.
Houston’s attraction was understandable after Ariza made a career-high 10 three-pointers and scored 32 points in a Wizards loss at Toyota Center last season. The Rockets signed Ariza away from the Los Angeles Lakers with a five-year, $34 million contract in 2009 and were looking to make a big move in free agency after being spurned by both Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh.
With Ariza accepting a lower-than-expected deal in Houston, the Rockets still hope to retain restricted free agent Chandler Parsons who signed a three-year, $46 million offer sheet with the Dallas Mavericks. They have until 11:59 on Sunday to match or decline, which pushed up the timeline to get a deal done.
After agreeing to terms with the Rockets, Ariza thanked the Wizards and owner Ted Leonsis on his Twitter account and also acknowledged Beal and Wall. He told them, “stay on that grind love y’all boys.”
Wall congratulated Ariza on Twitter as well, but the news caught Al Harrington by surprise. Harrington, who spent time with Ariza last week, is in Las Vegas assisting the Wizards’ summer league team and walked down a hallway stating, “I don’t believe it.”