The Los Angeles Lakers have had a size problem all season. It’s been on both ends of the spectrum too, as the beginning of the season saw the Lakers using lineups with DeAndre Jordan, limiting their spacing on offense even more with the poor shooting Russell Westbrook involved. Recently, the Lakers have become a faster and more explosive team while going small, however, they’ve had their shorter guards get exploited by larger wing players in addition to plenty of natural issues you’d expect from deploying a small-ball style of play, most notably rebounding. During this shift to a smaller playing style, they’ve lacked a wing around 6’6”, 6’7” than can defend one-through-four, allowing them to more properly use small-ball lineups that don’t get them killed on the defensive end. That type of player was supposed to be Trevor Ariza, however, he’s been far from what was expected in his 13 games played so far this season.
He’s struggled to keep lengthy ball-handlers in front of him at the point-of-attack, something that can be allowed within the traditional Lakers’ defense that has Anthony Davis to clean things up in the paint. It’s also sometimes part of the plan to be fine with penetration at the perimeter with the rest of the Lakers rotating and scrambling to get reset or cause a turnover. As one of those backline defenders, Ariza has shown a baseline of knowledge and defensive intuition of a 17-year veteran. However, his speed and athleticism is really putting him into a bind often times while on defense, with even more negative effects being seen on the offensive end.
In the last 11 games, the Lakers’ offensive rating is at its worst out of all the individual players when Ariza is on the court, at 107.1 points per 100 possessions in 209 minutes. With him off the court, it balloons to 118.1. That’s 11 more points per 100 possessions, the highest margin of difference for any Laker when on or off the court.
I used 11 games as a sample size for a reason. This coincides with the Lakers’ Dec. 31st game against the Trail Blazers, a game Ariza played in after missing the previous four due to being in health and safety protocols. Before that, he had only played in two games which served as his season debut after missing the first 30 games of the season with an ankle injury.
Needless to say, the 36-year-old may still be struggling to get his legs into game shape after being out for so long, only to get hit with COVID-19 right when he got back out on the court. When Ariza first participated in live action during practice on Dec. 6th, head coach Frank Vogel cautioned everyone by saying he’d need ramp up time to get those legs “back underneath him”. On Jan. 11th, Silver Screen & Roll reported that Vogel indicated that he had “seen some real positive things from him just in how he’s moving and the comfort level he’s getting on both sides of the ball.”
It’s a little questionable when watching the games to think Vogel whole-heartedly meant that in terms of how well Ariza has been moving, as it has looked rough for him out there on the court in the six games since. After the Lakers’ most recent loss against the Heat, Vogel was asked if the Lakers were still trying to play Ariza into a rhythm, something postured in response to Ariza’s rough night that included an 0/5 night on 3-pointers as well as four turnovers in only 14 minutes. Vogel gave as abrupt of an answer as you’ll see from the coach, ending with “he’ll come around.” You can see the interaction starting at 1:22 in the clip below.
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 24, 2022
It’s unfortunate for Ariza. And it’s especially unfortunate for the team. Maybe it is just the fact that he needs to play into game shape after the long injury and COVID-19. However, he’s looked lost athletically lately, and that’s saying something for someone who has been watching Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony all season with both of those guys showing far more capabilities in the athleticism department. And sadly, because of the way this season started, the Lakers don’t have a record that gives them a cushion in the standings to continue letting Ariza negatively affect the starting lineup so he can play into game shape. If the team wanted to rectify the issue at the trade deadline, well, that’s fast approaching with Feb. 10th right around the corner as the team’s timeline is getting bottle-necked from both directions.
His play since making his season debut has been so bad that a possible buyout isn’t out of the question. The Lakers are already positioning themselves for two new players to join the team after the trade deadline given the fact that Kent Bazemore and DeAndre Jordan have seemingly played their last minutes on the team. However, it might be worth it to make that three new players with Ariza going out as Bazemore has definitely shown more in his small amount of time on the court with a similar case that could be made for Jordan (I will not be the one to make that case but it could be done).
However, a buyout and/or a severely lessened role would mean two things. One, both of those options would be admissions from the front office that they incorrectly evaluated what Ariza could bring to this team. We all know now after the past week that there are some big egos in that office, with those big egos maybe not willing to admit that they were so horribly wrong. And two, in terms of going down the buyout route, that would mean ponying up some extra money WHILE admitting a mistake, something Jeanie Buss and the Lakers have shown they don’t want to do even when they think they’re making the right decision.
We all want Ariza to succeed. He is, of course, forever a Laker for winning the 2009 championship with the team. However, that was then, and this is now. And in the “now”, Ariza may not have what it takes to fill the large and taxing role that Vogel and the team have carved out for him. We will see if he gets his legs underneath him over the next week and a half. If that doesn’t happen, the losses may continue and the team may feel pressured to address yet another aspect of a poorly made roster at the trade deadline.