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Trevor Ariza doesn’t look like the difference-maker the Lakers were hoping he could be

Stir-fried and shaken, a 36-year-old Trevor Ariza might not be the guy the Lakers hoped he was.

Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

This past offseason, the Lakers made an apparent bet on playmaking potency at the expense of their defensive backbone. Saddled with nothing more than a handful of veteran’s minimum contracts to fill out the remainder of the roster with, the Lakers scrounged together a roster of mostly older millennials.

Of that bunch, the one projected to pick up the most defensive slack left hanging by the Lakers’ trio of departures on the wing — Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — was Trevor Ariza. However, an ankle injury (and subsequent surgery) delayed the 36-year-old’s season debut, before a trip into the health and safety protocols interrupted things further.

Since then, Ariza’s struggled to rejuvenate the defensive playmaking he was known for in his first stint as a Laker. Back when he took over for the COVID-positive Frank Vogel as the Lakers’ acting head coach, David Fizdale shed some light on where he thought Trevor Ariza was. And in seeming direct contrast with his praise of Ariza as a “calming, calming presence” on the court by “executing our coverages the right way,” given his IQ on both sides of the ball, Fiz admitted after the team’s Dec. 21 loss to the Suns that Ariza lacked the quickness to be a competent point-of-attack defender at that point.

“[He] got a couple moments tonight where they tested his feet and he couldn’t slide with a few guys,” Fizdale volunteered to the assembled media, implying that the Suns targeted Ariza as a weak point in the Lakers’ defense, instead of its glue.

Almost a month later, and Ariza still can’t “slide” with anybody. Few 36-year-olds are defensive stoppers, especially by means of their lateral quickness, as that athletic trait often fades first. So it’s possible that Ariza’s crispiness isn’t just him recovering from surgery. He might just be fully air-fried, or even well-done sous vide.

A month into his return, Ariza’s lineup data is especially damning, even among this broadly disappointing group. He has the worst on/off differential (-13.2) of any Laker still on the roster, but it’s his performance as a small-ball big — his purportedly intended usage in this specific team’s construction — that’s especially concerning.

Laker lineups with LeBron at the 5 score enough to win their minutes by a decent margin (+2.3 points per 100 possessions in 989 possessions), but have boat-raced teams in their most frequently used construction. The lineup with Stanley Johnson that the Lakers have used as the starting lineup five times this season is now +10.7 over 147 possessions. While their 30th percentile defense isn’t exactly the kind of lockdown performance Frank Vogel would like his team to play — especially with his job reportedly on the line — scoring 123 points per 100 more than gets the job done.

However, the Lakers have lost the 121 possessions with Ariza at the 4 and LeBron at the 5 by an ugly 38 points — and that’s despite Ariza’s unsustainably sharp 42.2% 3-point shooting. The Lakers are scoring only 102.5 points per 100 possessions while giving up 133.9 points on ridiculous 69.3% effective shooting in those constructs.

So while the sample is small, and some of that disparity may come down to some especially lucky opponent shooting with Ariza on the court, the Lakers are allowing constant forays to the rim and getting flambéed in transition whenever he’s is out there, a signal that his inability to stay in front of his man might be hurting the Lakers more often than any potentially heady rotations can make up for.

With regular season LeBron conserving energy for his own immense scoring load, the Lakers need the other frontcourt player to cover as much ground as possible, imbuing the defense with a sense of urgency it typically lacks whenever LeBron takes his foot off the gas on that end. So far, Ariza has not been that guy, especially in comparison to the energy and effort that the 11 years younger Stanley Johnson has proven capable of bringing.

Vogel has repeatedly praised Ariza’s play, with the most recent instance coming on Saturday, in advance of the game at Denver.

“Trevor’s just a guy that makes winning plays,” Vogel said, specifically citing the spacing that his shooting provides, and his ability to contribute to the “drive, re-drive, and drive-and-kick game” the Lakers prefer to turn to on offense.

He’s made some legitimately positive passes, but I can’t imagine this kind of impotent meandering into the outstretched arms of the league’s leading shot-blocker is what Frank had in mind:

While the Lakers did “peel back on” Ariza’s court-time as the sole big beside LeBron — as Vogel suggested they’d do before the game in Denver, tethering his minutes to Dwight Howard’s for nearly the entire game against the Jazz — they still struggled to get stops with him on the court.

Most notably, the Lakers lost Ariza’s unreasonably long 11-minute stint to open the third quarter by 16 points, 11 of which came in the less-than five minutes Dwight and LeBron left him stranded. That stretch turned a six-point halftime lead into a double-digit deficit, which the Lakers needed a fourth quarter rally to overcome.

In contrast with Vogel’s recent adulation, Ariza continued to look more hyper-limited than “very versatile” during his extended run on Monday night.

Above, Ariza’s tortoise-like backpedal catches him flat-footed at the top of the circle instead of in position to tag Gobert and let Bradley handle the contest of Mitchell. And then below, Ariza freezes instead of helping on Conley’s imminent drive, as if the nail in the center of the free throw line were actually driven through one of his feet.

These aren’t exactly implosions, but these clips demonstrate Ariza’s current athletic limitations, restrictions that leave him lying in sharp contrast to the playmaker he once was on that end.

To put an even finer point on Ariza’s defensive issues in the Lakers’ win, the Jazz scored eight of their 36 paint points of the regulation 48-minute contest in the less-than five minutes between Dwight and LeBron’s departure in that third quarter and the King’s eventual return to the court in relief of Ariza.

While the majority of those buckets with Bron and Dwight off the court didn’t actually come from Ariza’s own lapses, it’s his inability to make up for his teammates’ defensive limitations in a super-switchy scheme in their smallest lineups — like Anthony Davis or (locked-in) LeBron more often can — that ultimately poisoned the Lakers’ chances of winning those minutes. While that may be too much to ask of Trevor Ariza at this point in his career, or frankly, anyone outside of the switchable rim-protector mold like Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, and, newly, Jaren Jackson Jr., he’s much less valuable to the Lakers as currently constructed if he can’t be a defensively stout part of their small-ball lineups.

If Ariza can’t play himself into a sprier shape in the coming weeks, he might not just be inessential to the Lakers’ identity, contrary to the way that the team had repeatedly suggested, he could instead actually be unplayable altogether. It’s possible he ekes out some consistent minutes at one of the forward spots next to a traditional big, especially if he continues to shoot over 40% from distance, but if Monday’s 1-6 performance is a harbinger of a trend towards his career 35.2% average, the Lakers may not be able to offensively overcome the cramped spacing his presence on the floor will create if he’s not pulling his weight on the other end.

If the team ends up retaining Stanley Johnson after the conclusion of his final 10-day contract and into the stretch run of the season, and Anthony Davis comes back at full-strength, the Lakers could be best off stowing what remains of Ariza’s freeze-dried athleticism at the end of the bench.

So perhaps they’re leaning on him now just to see to what extent they can drag him towards whatever his current version of peak condition looks like, but right now, based on what we’ve seen, I wouldn’t bank on the Lakers winning minutes with Ariza on the floor when games really start to matter.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.