Trevor Ariza has been key to Washington Wizards’ recent success, but he might be gone next season

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the Wizards can keep playing above-.500 basketball without Nene. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist March 17

As the list of positive developments for the Washington Wizards continues to grow, forward Trevor Ariza’s play has been among their most important. The
10-year veteran is having his best season while helping the Wizards overcome the loss of Nene.

The lanky wing player is the Wizards’ best perimeter shooter and defender. He’s a dependable scorer. And Ariza is as solid in the locker room as he is on the court. Wizards fans should enjoy Ariza’s impressive performance while they can. In all likelihood, the show will be moving on soon.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Ariza can become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Although he has been a huge contributor to the franchise’s revival, the Wizards have a logjam at his position. Backup forward Martell Webster is in the first year of a long-term deal, and rookie Otto Porter Jr., the third overall pick in last June’s draft, needs to play, which he can’t do if he remains buried on the bench.

For now, though, Ariza is on the roster — and the Wizards have needed him.

The Wizards have maintained their solid footing in the Eastern Conference playoff race (they’re currently fifth) despite the loss of Nene, who could miss all but the last few games of the regular season because of a knee injury. The Wizards had been 8-34 without the talented-but-brittle Brazilian big man before this most recent ailment, but they’re 7-3 in this stint entering this week’s four-game Western swing, thanks in large part to Ariza.

Ariza, whose career scoring average is 9.6 points, is at a personal-best 15 points per game this season. With Nene out, Ariza is averaging 19 points.

And his long-range shooting has never been better. Ariza had his best performance behind the arc last season with Washington: 36.4 percent. He’s shooting 42.2 percent this season and 51 percent in the past 10 games. During that span, Ariza has scored more than 20 points five times and had a career-high 40 earlier this month in a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, during which he made 8 of 12 three-point attempts.

Ariza played a key role during the Los Angeles Lakers’ run to the 2008-09 NBA title. The championship experience taught Ariza that what’s most important for winning teams is to “have everyone else do what’s expected when you have a [significant] goal and one player goes down,” he said in a recent interview. “Everyone else has to step up. . . . It sounds simple but it’s not. You have to do it every night. That was the challenge for us. That’s the challenge I took on.”

Ariza is used to facing challenges on defense. Throughout his career, he has drawn the toughest assignments. Ariza is good at rising to the occasion, as he proved again Saturday night, when the Wizards overcame a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Nets, 101-94, amid a playoff atmosphere at Verizon Center. Washington swept the season series (3-0) and bumped Brooklyn to sixth in the East.

Ariza’s putback with 44 seconds left gave the Wizards a five-point lead. After Brooklyn called a timeout, Ariza played some of the best position defense you’ll ever see against Joe Johnson, who missed a 17-footer with 35 seconds to play. As much as the Wizards have benefitted from Ariza’s improved scoring and shooting, his defense has been invaluable. Coach Randy Wittman often praises Ariza, who said he doesn’t “take too kind to it when someone scores on me. It just really, really irks me.”

Playing with John Wall gives Ariza a smile. From the moment Wall entered the league, he was among its fastest point guards. This season, however, Wall has displayed a newfound understanding of how to set up his teammates, which has helped him become a star and “helps the rest of us to grow as players and as a team,” Ariza said. “With his penetration into the teeth of the defense, we’re wide open.”

Consistency, scoring, top-notch three-point shooting and strong defense — Ariza is providing it all. He’s also only 28. Still, after drafting Porter and signing Webster last summer, it would be downright crazy for the Wizards to go all-out in an attempt to bring back Ariza, who is making $7.7 million in the final year of a five-year deal worth about $34 million. These days, the Wizards don’t make crazy decisions.

Of course, if the Wizards traded Webster, thereby opening a spot for Porter to get more minutes next season, and Ariza was willing to work with them on a cap-friendly deal, well, bringing him back would make sense.

“With everything that happened [Webster’s contract and Porter being drafted], it was like, ‘Well, the writing is basically on the wall,’ ” Ariza said. “But I looked at it as a challenge. I got myself prepared to play, and no matter what we needed, I was focused to help my team as much as I can.”

Ariza has done that. He’ll have to wait to find out whether the Wizards are interested in giving him another opportunity to try.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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