Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lakers' "Ghost" Haunting the NBA

Almost a year ago, after tours in New York and Orlando, Trevor Ariza returned to Southern California, where he’d played his high school ball, winning a state championship, and played his lone year (2003-04) of NCAA basketball at UCLA. Ariza, a second-round pick (43rd overall) of the Knicks in 2004, spent 3+ seasons with the Knicks and Magic, playing sparingly, putting up nothing-special numbers on series of nothing-special (a generous assessment) teams. There was never any doubt about his athleticism, but not many predicted that Ariza would emerge as the second-coming of Michael Cooper.


The November 20, 2007 deal that saw the Lakers sent a package of Brian Cook, a seven-footer with a good outside shot (but not good enough to justify his lack of improvement in any other area) and another athletic defender, Maurice Evans, to the Orlando Magic, in exchange for Trevor Ariza, hardly had the look of an impact move. While the Lakers were getting younger by acquiring Ariza, then just 22 years of age, Evans (29 at the time) had been playing very well in a similar role as the team had run out to an unexpectedly strong start. Why rock the boat? As it turns out, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak (to whom I owe several apologies!), knew exactly what he was doing! Ariza was not a younger, more athletic version of Mo Evans, the departure of Cook freed up floor time, which was well-spent, as it was during these minutes that the emergence of Andrew Bynum took place.


Despite losing much of 2007-08 to a broken foot, Ariza brought a level of speed, athleticism and defensive intensity to the 2/3 position that is matched by only one other Laker- Kobe Bryant. It is exactly this that has made Trevor Ariza so valuable; while Kobe Bryant can match Ariza in terms of both physical tools and defensive prowess, he is also counted on to be the Lakers’ most dominant offensive player. Trevor Ariza makes it possible for Kobe to not have to guard the opposition’s best offensive player, protecting him from foul trouble as well as fatigue from having to play the most challenging role at both ends of the floor.


But as good an on-the-ball defender as Ariza is, it is his ability to find the ball and make plays coming off the weak side that truly set him apart. It's this talent that has led Lakers' coach Phil Jackson to call Ariza "the Ghost", saying that "Sort of a stealth player. Just all of a sudden he shows ... and he's gone. He's a blip and he's away." Not only is Ariza as good as there is in the NBA at coming from a ballhandler’s blind side (2.2 spg), he's an excellent rebounder (5.2 rpg; ~10.6 reb/48 minutes) as well. Also, he’s proven to be a solid, and ever-improving, offensive player as well, averaging 10 points a game, while shooting better than 50% from both the field (51.2%) AND 3-point range (54.5%), and not giving away possessions (.7 TO/g).


Following a trade that turned very few heads at the time, Trevor Ariza has turned out to be an outstanding find for the Lakers, contributing defensive intensity and incredible athleticism to what may already be the NBA’s deepest and best team- all while flying under the radar.


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