“If I had to critique the last few days, I’d say he’d be the starting” small forward, Webster said recently of Ariza. “It’s something that he has on defense. He’s just amazing. He has an asset you can’t really teach. He plays it like a cornerback, to tell you the truth. He has great anticipation skills, defensive awareness.
“It’s competitive, and I love it,” Webster said. “I don’t care about a starting role. I just care about contributing to this team. Coming off the bench with the second unit is just as fun.”
Webster responded to the challenge in 2012-13 with the best season of his career, ended up as the starter and was rewarded with a five-year extension worth $22 million. But Ariza is still around after picking up his option and is eager to claim the spot he lost and never regained after returning from a left calf strain.
Ariza, the only player on the Wizards’ roster with a championship ring, never hid his reluctance to come off the bench and referred to himself as a “sixth starter” last season. But as he sat on a trainer’s table icing his right calf after a recent practice, Ariza responded to Webster’s remarks by stating he would endorse Webster as the starter.
“That’s just how we feel about each other,” Ariza said. “We push each other out here, and we just want the best for each other.”
The Wizards drafted Otto Porter Jr. in June to serve as their small forward of the future, but he has missed the start of camp with a sore right hip and faces a steep learning curve before he can supplant the established veterans ahead of him.
The two players also have differing but effective playing styles: The defensive-minded Ariza, 28, can spread the floor and excel in catch-and-shoot situations, while Webster, 26, is more accurate from beyond three-point range without letting the defensive intensity lag.
Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said before camp he had an idea of which way he was leaning with his starting unit but wanted to leave it up to the players to make the decision for him with their performance.
“I want it to be a competition, but I think they know what I expect out of each of them. They are a little bit different players and what they bring to the team, but whichever way we go, it’s going to be a lot like last year was. That’s kind of how I look at it, and I’ve told them that. They know how I feel about both of them.”
Webster averaged 28.9 minutes, and Ariza averaged 26.3 minutes. After point guard John Wall returned from the injury that sidelined him until January, Webster averaged 12.8 points and shot 43.4 percent from three-point range, while Ariza averaged 10.2 points and shot 39.3 percent from long distance.
“We talked about how important that it is for us and John [Wall] and the ability that he has to get into the paint and create with pace, that we have to have guys that can space the floor and knock down shots. That’s what those two give us,” Wittman said. “They are one and the same.”
They shared the court during crunch time last season, and their versatility basically ensures them ample opportunity to play. The 6-foot-8 Ariza can guard multiple positions, including power forward in some small-ball lineups, while the 6-7 Webster is expected to spell Bradley Beal at shooting guard.
Ariza sat out Tuesday’s practice to rest his sore right calf, but Wittman said the injury wasn’t considered serious. If he doesn’t wind up starting the season as a reserve, Ariza said he would continue to view himself as a starter in this league.
“My feelings don’t change as far as that’s concerned,” Ariza said. “I don’t feel like there is anything wrong with feeling that way. I feel like every player in the NBA should feel like that because that means you just have that much confidence in yourself and your abilities. For that to be a debate or anything, I feel that’s good for a team if you have that many good players on your team. That just means that your team is going to be strong in those positions.”