OAKLAND, Calif. — Not long after committing to play for the Washington Wizards for another year, Trevor Ariza had to wonder if he’d even get the chance to start the season, let alone finish it, with the team.
Within 10 days of picking up the player option on the last year of his contract, Ariza watched the team draft Otto Porter Jr. and bring back Martell Webster on a four-year contract. The moves to bolster a small forward position he also played immediately led to speculation — in Ariza’s mind and others — about when he might be headed out of town.
“It raised concern, for me,” Ariza admitted after Monday’s practice at Oracle Arena, where the Wizards will attempt to even their season series with the Golden State Warriors. “At first.”
Ariza has moved around enough times in his nine-year career — Washington is his sixth team — to understand how business works in the NBA. So instead of looking over his shoulder and worrying about his future, Ariza focused on making himself better and making the best of an uncertain situation.
He beat out Webster in a competitive battle for the starting job in training camp and Porter’s career has been slow to take off after he missed three months with a strained right hip flexor. By blocking out distractions, Ariza has authored a solid season in which his defense and three-point proficiency have contributed to the Wizards (21-22) being in contention for their first playoff berth in six years.
“He’s playing the best basketball I think he’s played, here, and probably the last couple of years,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “And I think a lot of it has to with a little more ownership, and leadership. He’s playing at a high level now.”
The Wizards acquired Ariza, along with Emeka Okafor, from New Orleans in June 2012 in an effort to provide more of a veteran presence and professional environment for a young team. Ariza wasn’t always ready to assume a leadership role last season, having been one of the younger players at his previous stops. At 28, he is the fourth-oldest player on the Wizards’ roster and understands that he has a responsibility to do more to help his younger teammates progressed — especially after the injured Okafor was moved before the season in exchange for Marcin Gortat.
“That’s a part of the game that we have to realize is going to happen at some point,” said Ariza, who organized a players-only meeting that served as the turning point of the season. Washington has gone 19-15 since roles were defined in an air-it-out session.
“I’m very comfortable. I’m extremely comfortable. The group that we have has been together for a full year. We’re comfortable with each other,” Ariza said. “People are more locked in and taking the game a little more serious than when I first got here. The talent is there. It’s always been there. It was just timing. We’re still learning, still growing as a team, because we still have a lot of young players. They are just more mature now and they want to be really good and they want to win. I think that helps a lot.”
Ariza is averaging 14.2 points per game, third on the team, and is shooting a career-high 39.8 percent from three-point range. And after falling into a slump earlier this month, Ariza has regained his form through the first half of this four-game road trip. He has led the team with 23 points against both Phoenix and Utah and also matched his season high with six three-pointers against the Jazz.
“It’s playing within the context of the game. Taking what the other team is giving you,” Ariza said. “I’m just going to keep my confidence high, keep shooting, that’s all I try to do. That’s all my team asks of me.”
The last time he was in a contract year, Ariza helped the Los Angeles Lakers win the 2009 NBA championship as a role player told simply to play hard and with a lot of energy. He cashed in on that season with a five-year, $35 million contract with the Houston Rockets. On his third team since leaving the Lakers, Ariza has settled into a position that he has embraced.
“This time around, I’m asked to do more,” said Ariza, the Wizards’ second-highest paid player at $7.7 million. “I take it and I appreciate that, because you never know what your last game may be. You never know what the future holds for any of us. You just enjoy it and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
When asked if he would like to stick around in Washington to help this team continue to grow, Ariza said, “It’s not my decision. Of course, when you spend time with people, you get used to being around them. But again, I understand that this is a business. Some things you can’t control, whether you want to or not, and you can’t really worry about it.
“Just trying not to take things for granted, man,” he said. “Coming out, working hard every day. Doing what I can to lead in my own little way. That’s pretty much it.”