Wizards’ Trevor Ariza adjusting well to his role off the bench

Rob Carr/Getty Images - Trevor Ariza, here with Wizards Coach Randy Wittman, considers himself a ‘sixth starter’ instead of the first player off the bench.

When the Washington Wizards went their separate ways for the all-star break last month, Trevor Ariza didn’t join his teammates on the flight to Dulles International Airport, opting to catch his own flight from Detroit to Los Angeles to spend some time with his family and friends back home. Ariza joked about returning to a much warmer climate, if even for a few days.

“I need that in my life right now,” he said, flashing a huge smile.

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A week later at the trade deadline, the Wizards almost sent Ariza back to Los Angeles on a more permanent basis, coming close to a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers for Caron Butler, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions. NBA.com reported that Clippers owner Donald Sterling rejected the deal for fear of breaking up the chemistry of a team that has the third-best record in the Western Conference.

Asked on Saturday if he was upset about being unable to join a contender, have a reunion with former New Orleans Hornets teammate Chris Paul and return to the place where he grew up and won a title with the Lakers in 2009, Ariza offered a shrug.

“Can’t really worry about that kind of stuff,” Ariza said. “I really don’t think about it. If it would’ve happened, cool. If it didn’t, even better. I’m not. . . . I like it here. Especially now that I’m playing better and we’re starting to win games. I’m not really worried about anything.”

Ariza currently is in the midst of his best stretch of basketball since joining the Wizards, in a trade that included Emeka Okafor, last June in a deal with the Hornets.

The 6-foot-8 forward has scored at least 15 points in four of the past five games, including a season-high 22 points in a 96-95 loss to Detroit on Wednesday in which he scored eight points in 49 seconds and came about a foot short of completing one of the more remarkable one-man comebacks in NBA history. His rushed jumper from the left corner nipped the bottom of the net, momentarily fooling some of the fans and the broadcast crews of both teams into thinking it had dropped.

Ariza’s improved play is far from an illusion, with the eight-year veteran finally finding comfort in his new surroundings and responding to an unfamiliar reserve role with compliance rather than complaint. After starting 206 of his previous 207 games before arriving in Washington, Ariza started 13 of his first 15 games with the Wizards before suffering a strained left calf in an upset win over the defending champion Miami Heat.

With Martell Webster thriving while Ariza was sidelined for 17 games, Coach Randy Wittman decided to keep Webster as a starter and bring Ariza off the bench. Instead of calling himself a sixth man, Ariza has instead preferred the title of “sixth starter,” because he receives considerable playing time and often is on the court in crunch time.

“Still, I look as myself as a starter in this league,” said Ariza, who is averaging 8.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and a team-best 1.48 steals. “I’ve been a starter for a long time, so it’s hard to just continue to come off the bench, but it is what it is. I’ve just got to stay ready.”

The Wizards (18-39) are 15-11 in the past 26 games that Ariza has appeared, with him backing up Webster for the past 25. In 27 games as a reserve, Ariza has a better scoring average (9.3 points compared to 8.2) and shot better from the field (43.1 percent to 37.5) and from beyond the three-point line (35.7 percent to 25.8) than he did as a starter. Those improved numbers are also mostly since John Wall returned from his left knee injury.

“Anytime you get into a role and accept a role, it’s sets up for you having a chance to play good. That’s what he’s done. And he’s played extremely well,” Wittman said. “He gets in passing lanes, steals, deflections, gets us on the break. He’s making his spot-up threes and he’s putting the ball on the floor and creating for others during this stretch that’s been beneficial.”

Ariza had a difficult initial adjustment to Washington, having to serve the role as an elder statesmen at age 27. He was looked upon as a leader and forced to offer advice to players up to eight years younger while still trying to figure out his own role. Sitting and observing for nearly a month because of injury did nothing to help him.

“It just prolonged the process of me fitting in,” Ariza said with a laugh. “When you’re coming from a different place, it takes time to get settled in and get used to. I’m not worrying about making shots anymore. Is this a bad shot? Or a good shot? I’m just shooting them now. I have [assistant coach Sam Cassell] in my ear the whole time: ‘Shoot it! Shoot it!’ All that has definitely helped me a lot.”

Ariza has an early termination clause in his contract that would allow him to opt out of the final year of a deal that will pay him $7.7 million in 2013-14. “I haven’t even really thought about it. I’m just trying to do what I need to do to help this team win and put together a string of wins and build momentum, some sort of way,” Ariza said when asked of his plans. “We do have a full team now. And as everybody has seen, with a full team, we’re not a bad team at all. We’re a pretty good team that can compete in this league for a playoff spot. We’ve just got to continue to work at that.”

And Ariza will continue to settle into life on the East Coast. “I’m a West Coast dude, definitely, but I do like the city of D.C. It’s cool. A lot of things to do,” he said. “It’s just cold.”

 
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