AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — After a year of acclimating himself with the Washington Wizards , forward Trevor Ariza is once again adjusting to a different role as a starter alongside Bradley Beal and John Wall . Ariza made just 15 starts last season, when he lost his job to Martell Webster because of a strained left calf, but only two came after Wall made his season debut and both were when Beal was out with a left ankle injury.
“We’re still trying to figure it out,” Ariza said of developing chemistry with Washington’s back court. “It’s a good thing that they’re here and I’m here in the preseason to try and figure that out, see where we’re comfortable or whatever the case may be. It's a process. For us to be good, we all have to be on the same page and that’s what we’re working toward.”
The Wizards’ offense has sputtered for much of the preseason, but the defense has remained consistent and stout, even in the absence of the injured Emeka Okafor. But Ariza has also helped with the transition on the defensive end because of his ability to guard multiple positions, disrupt passing lanes and deflect passes with his long arms.
The 6-foot-8 Ariza also has the ability to consistently defend three positions — four, if opposing teams choose to go small — and usually embraces the challenge of guarding the best perimeter player on the court.
“He kind of leads us with that,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “We don’t have anybody else that can probably do that, the way he does. And then you feed off that. If you’re on the floor with a guy like that, that’s getting his hands on a lot of balls, causing a lot of havoc, you’re right there, too, now, pretty alive. It’s kind of one of those things that trickles down when you play with him from a defensive standpoint.”
With Ariza in the lineup last season, the Wizards allowed just 98.7 points per 100 possessions, which was the second-best defensive rating behind Nene among players to appear in at least 10 games. And despite missing 26 games because of his injury, Ariza still led the Wizards with 72 steals.
“He creates stuff for us defensively that makes it a lot easier for us,” Wall said. “T.A. is a great player that you need on your team because he’s a guy that knock down a lot of shots and he makes little plays that nobody will give him credit for, but we understand and we see what he does for our team and he’s a big part of it.”
Ariza finished last season strong, averaging 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds while shooting 41.5 percent from beyond the three-point line in 22 games after the all-star break. That stretch included a 26-point, 10-rebound outing in a win over Charlotte and a career-high seven three-pointers in a comeback win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Ariza had the option to become a free agent last summer, but instead picked up his option worth $7.7 million the day before the NBA draft, explaining that he didn’t want to “leave any money on the table.” He was also wary of what turned out to be a chilly free agent market.
The Wizards still drafted Otto Porter Jr. with the third overall pick and retained Webster with a four-year deal, securing the future at small forward while Ariza remains on an expiring deal that could easily be used in a trade. Ariza, 28, admitted that being in a contract year does cross his mind.
“A little bit. It's hard to say you don’t think about it,” said Ariza. “I do my best not to think about it. I do my best to come in and work hard and let everything else take care of itself.”
The last time Ariza was playing for a contract, he helped the Lakers win the 2009 NBA championship. This season, the Wizards are simply trying to reach the playoffs for the first time in six years. Ariza said he believes the Wizards have what it takes to get there, following a season in which they overcame considerable adversity, with regard to injuries. The postseason expectations are nothing to run from, he said.
“I think pressure is a frame of mind. We just have to do our jobs,” said Ariza, who had six points, five rebounds and recorded a steal for the fifth consecutive game as the Wizards lost to the Detroit Pistons, 99-96, on Tuesday night.
“I feel we have a really good team and we all want to be good. We know we had a lot of things that were up against us last year that’s none of our faults and we just couldn’t get right. But as time goes on, we kept fighting through and fighting through, we stuck together and hopefully that helps us out this year.”
Wizards note: Beal had a team-high 17 points and Nene had 15 as the Wizards (1-5) rallied from a 24-point, first-half deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Glen Rice Jr. missed a potential tying three-pointer as time expired.