Trevor Ariza didn’t think he was going to have to make much of a decision the last time he entered free agency in 2009. A former star at Westchester High and later UCLA, Ariza assumed that he was destined to return to his hometown Los Angeles Lakers after helping the franchise claim its 15th NBA championship roughly two weeks before the free agent recruiting period began.
“There’s no way I’m going anywhere,” Ariza said he told himself.
Ariza said Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak told his agent at the time, David Lee, that the team thought the wiry wingman was worth the full mid-level exception but would match a larger offer from another team. Lee set up some meetings with other teams and Ariza recalls being in Las Vegas, celebrating his 24th birthday, and having dinner with Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey at P.F. Chang’s when he received the disappointing news. Morey informed Ariza that the Lakers had agreed to terms with Ron Artest.
After expressing his disbelief to Morey with a few coarse words, Ariza said, “I went back to my room and I got hella calls. I was hurt. I was mad, but again, being young, I didn’t understand and I didn’t care to understand. I just knew they didn’t want me there, so I went to Houston. I was like, ‘All right then, [expletive] it. I got to do what I got to do.’ ”
Ariza finished out the last year of the five-year, $34 million deal that he signed with Rockets as a member of the Wizards after being passing through New Orleans as well. And, as he enters free agency once again, Ariza admits that the experience isn’t always the most relaxing.
“I think that you’ve just got to be patient,” Ariza said. “It’s an exciting time, nerve wracking at times, too. Just got to see what happens. Can’t really prepare for it.”
The Wizards would like to bring back Ariza, even though the team already has more than $9 million committed to the small forward position with Martell Webster and Otto Porter. Ariza laughed when told that some suggest that his inspired play came as the result of a contract push for another pay day. “Whatever. As long as they watched, respect,” he said with a laugh. “I’m just happy that they was watching.”
Ariza, 29, earned $7.7 million this season and will be looking for a raise after a season in which he averaged 14.4 points and posted career highs in field percentage (45.6), three-point percentage (40.7), three-pointers (180) and rebounds (6.2). But he added that his decision will come down to a number of factors other than money.
“I think trust,” Ariza said, when asked what was most important to him. “Having trust in where you are, with your organization, with your teammates, is No. 1. “And how comfortable you are, how comfortable my family is, and this year, my family has been extremely comfortable. We loved our neighborhood that we lived in. The organization has been great. My teammates, we hang out all the time, so I think this is a really good destination. Free agents would be crazy not to want to come here.”
Ariza was obviously more comfortable in his second season in Washington, with the Wizards making the transition from an NBA dreg to an Eastern Conference semifinalist. And Ariza’s comments about the organization are a stark contrast to last season, when he explained that he would pick up his player option because he didn’t “want to leave money on the table.”
“It’s like night and day,” Ariza said of the state of the organization. “When I first got here, things were very different. It was not fun losing. It [stunk]. And players got better, more mature, our team came together, we gelled at the right time and took off from there.”
Wizards players marveled about the chemistry that they formed over the course of an up-and-down season. They bonded over team dinners and social gatherings, which made Ariza connect with his teammates beyond basketball. When asked to explain how much of a role his family will play in the decision, Ariza gave an answer that suggested that he would take two into consideration.
“My family is definitely the most important thing for me, before anything. Basketball, everything. So that plays a big factor into a lot things,” Ariza said, “but when you build something with people that’s hard to let go and what we built in this locker room this season is a beautiful thing to me. I really enjoyed playing with those guys and I love those dudes like they’re my brothers.
“It’s always been more than money. People get confused because we all make a lot of money and it seems crazy to the general public, but this is something that we all love to do. We play this game because we love it and if we didn’t get paid for it, most of us probably would still be playing. You just got to be comfortable where you are.”