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Can Trevor Ariza still be a key part of the Lakers’ defense?

It will be tough for Frank Vogel to keep his Lakers near the top of the best defensive teams in the NBA after this offseason. But if he does produce another top-tier defense, it may be due in part to the contributions of Trevor Ariza.

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Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every week day, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Trevor Ariza.

Trevor Ariza played the entirety of the 2020-21 season as a member of the Miami Heat. Before that, the last time he played a full season with one team was in the 2017-18 campaign, his last of four in his second go-around with the Houston Rockets. It was sadly starting to seem like Ariza was possibly nearing “washed” territory, as he was passed around for a couple of years following his time with the Rockets, playing with four total teams in that time before he signed a one-year deal with the Heat last offseason.

Now, he returns to the Los Angeles Lakers, where Ariza played for two years of his physical prime from 2007 to 2009, winning a championship with the team in that final year. But Rob Pelinka and the Lakers’ coaching staff will have to hope he still has enough left in the tank to help them now, over a decade later, as his defensive prowess and versatility will be sorely needed on this roster once again.

Ariza has shown the ability to be a solid 3-point shooter in the past, but looking at this roster, it appears the other side of the ball is where the Lakers will need his help the most. With LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis around, the worries on the defensive end will always seem more important for role players to address than anything they contribute offensively.

Plus, in 2021, it’s always important to have solid wing defenders on hand, given the abundance of offensive talent at that position around the league. The Lakers don’t have too much depth in the wing department, as Ariza and Kent Bazemore will most likely fill all of the time there that LeBron doesn’t take up, while Carmelo Anthony will probably continue to fill the “stretch 4” role he’s occupied the past couple of seasons.

Although Ariza has long been considered a wing given his 6’8’’ height, he spent more time last season guarding the opposing team’s point guards than any of the other four positions. Specifically, he spent 30% of his time guarding point guards, according to B-Ball Index (power forward was next at 27%). That may have been more of a reflection of the Heat’s roster last season, as Ariza was more needed at the point-of-attack after Avery Bradley missed a considerable amount of time due to injury.

The time Ariza spent guarding point guards is more reflective of what Erik Spoelstra wanted out of Ariza, as opposed to it being reflective of an over-switching defense. Below, you can see Ariza picking up opposing point guards like Damian Lillard, Coby White, and D’Angelo Russell (the top three players Ariza spent the most time guarding last season per NBA.com) to varying degrees of success (and failures).

But for all his troubles playing down a couple of positions on defense, Ariza has the highest mark in Defensive Role Versatility on the 2021-22 Lakers, but only the 7th-highest D-LEBRON (an advanced defensive value metric from B-Ball Index). This shows that his versatility may have been stretched too thin on the Heat, as Spoelstra may have asked him to do a little too much through guarding some of these speedy, younger point guards.

When looking at the Lakers’ roster, it’s doubtful that Ariza will end up guarding point guards as often. Although there are worries with his defense, Russell Westbrook will be forced to guard most opposing 1s for a significant amount of time during the season. In addition, Ariza could be playing alongside Kendrick Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker, with it recently being revealed that the latter of those two has been challenged by Vogel to cover opposing team’s best players. With a massive pool of teams’ best offensive players being their ball-handlers, it stands to reason that THT may be drawing that type of PG assignment more often than Ariza will if the Lakers want a larger option for such players.

The Lakers’ roster will allow Ariza to return to guarding the opposing team’s wings, his most natural defensive role. Spending less time guarding the primary ball-handler will also allow Ariza to be on the weakside more, which should then allow him to wreak havoc in passing lanes with his insane 7’2’’ wingspan. This is something he was elite in on defense last season, ranking in the 90th and 89th percentiles of the entire NBA for steals and deflections per 75 possessions, respectively (per B-Ball Index).

Enough about defense, though. What about Ariza’s offense? Well, luckily the Lakers have no shortage of guys who can make plays, because Ariza is bringing nothing in that regard. However, he does come as a great off-ball movement option (87th percentile in Movement Impact per 75 possessions per B-Ball Index) that can receive some assists from the likes of LeBron James and Russell Westbrook.

Sadly, Ariza only made 35% of his 3-point attempts last season after making 40% in his 21 games with the Trail Blazers in the latter part of the 2019-20 season. It’s doubtful the insane playmaking minds of James and Westbrook can drastically improve Ariza’s shot quality this season, either, as he was already in the 88th percentile of 3-point shot quality last season (per B-Ball Index). It seems he just couldn’t put the ball in the basket once presented with an open 3-pointer, as he only made 34.8% of his wide open 3-point attempts last season.

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

I know. The last thing the Lakers need on the floor is another aging player who has questionable shooting. However, if the 36-year-old can receive enough rest to still be serviceable come playing time, Ariza’s wing defense could force Vogel to have him on the floor in closing playoff lineups. If it’s not a reflection of how well he’s defended wings on the season, it will be a reflection of the team lacking depth at that position.

The worry about Ariza being gassed by the end of the season is definitely there, but hopefully that won’t be too much of a problem, with the team being able to rest certain players here and there given their talent from top-to-bottom on this roster. New signee Wayne Ellington even confirmed the idea of this recently.

Speaking of Ellington, it’s recently been reported by The Athletic that he and Ariza will likely be the other two members of the starting lineup alongside Anthony Davis, James and Westbrook. The players’ pairing alongside the Lakers’ big three presents a fun balancing of strengths and weaknesses, a sort of symbiosis for two useful players who both have obvious flaws. Ariza’s slightly below average 3-point shooting won’t hurt the team’s spacing too much with Ellington on the floor — the latter shot 42.2% on 3-pointers last year — while Ariza’s wing defense will allow Ellington and his poor defense (3rd percentile in D-LEBRON per B-Ball Index) to be assigned to the opponent’s worst offensive wing/guard.

Although Frank Vogel has made a habit in the past of not relying on his starting lineup for closing important games, Ariza does seem like a player who could make the transition seamlessly from starter to closer. He probably won’t have a highlight tape of offensive contributions by the end of the year, but his impact could be felt intensely on the defensive end. He’s one of the best (even if he’s also one of the few) wing defenders on the team, and a shift from primarily guarding point guards to wings could help him bounce back in an area he was already pretty good in.

If that shift does happen, then Ariza could end up being a key defensive role player on a Lakers champion once again.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Donny on Twitter at @donny_mchenry.