A 14-year veteran with loads of playoff experience who plays one of the most important modern-day positional archetypes, Trevor Ariza is set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer for the first time since 2014.
Since joining the Houston Rockets four seasons ago, the 6-foot-8 forward has been a pivotal piece to the team with the third-most regular-season wins since 2014-15. Only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have more victories over the past four campaigns than Houston’s 217, and Ariza’s been key to a lot of them thanks to his defensive versatility and his prowess as a spot-up shooter.
In 2017-18, the Rockets won a franchise-record 65 regular-season games, and came within one victory of downing the Warriors and winning the Western Conference crown. Though most of the credit rightfully went to potential league MVP James Harden and his elite backcourt partner Chris Paul, Ariza contributed by averaging 11.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 2.5 three-pointers nightly, while knocking down a healthy 36.8 percent of his attempts from deep.
Despite the fact he’ll be 33 by the time 2018-19 rolls around, Ariza has shown he’s got plenty left in the tank. Teams with contention on their minds and the standard mid-level exception available to use will assuredly sniff around the Rockets swingman this offseason. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see rebuilding franchises with cap space take a look at Ariza, especially if they feel they need a veteran voice in the locker room.
But ultimately, due to the success Houston has had recently and the fact they own Ariza’s Bird Rights, allowing them to go over the cap to re-sign him, the Rockets will have a leg up in bringing the sharpshooting forward back. Then again, outside factors, which we’ll get to, could affect how aggressive Houston ends up being in re-signing Ariza.
We break down the experienced wing’s likeliest free-agent landing spots.
New York Knicks
Of the rebuilding organizations with money to spend, the likeliest suitor for Ariza would probably be the New York Knicks.
Not only were they the team that drafted him back in 2004 (granted, that was before they traded him to the Orlando Magic a season and a half later), but New York also has a desperate need for a floor-spacing wing.
Sure, their theoretical interest in Ariza would greatly wane if they land a forward with their first-round, ninth-overall pick in the 2018 draft – Michael Porter Jr, Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges are three prime candidates – but if they go with a guard or big man instead – like Trae Young or Wendell Carter, for example – Ariza could make sense to close out their starting five.
The fact that Kristaps Porzingis appears to be healing from a torn ACL at an alarming rate…
…could motivate New York to field a more competitive team in 2018-19 than if the Latvian big man were forced to miss a large chunk of the season.
Financially, for the Knicks to sign Ariza, barring Enes Kanter or Kyle O’Quinn opting out of the final years of their deals (starting to not look all that likely), or Joakim Noah finally gets bought out or traded (even less likely), all New York will have to offer the Los Angeles native is the standard mid-level exception, worth $8.6 million annually.
To make the deal look more worthwhile to Ariza, though, the Knicks can offer him the maximum allowed four years on the contract, so that way, the 32-year-old 3-and-D wing gets the security that comes from one final long-term contract before his play begins to taper off.
A four-year, $34.4 million agreement would be beneficial to both parties, at least if the Knicks decide they want to be more competitive next season, and don’t take a wing in the 2018 draft.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s potential interest in Ariza, as was the case with the Knicks, comes with a condition: They would have to lose the services of All-Star wing Paul George first.
Losing George would open up a hole on the wing for a Thunder team hoping to be as competitive as possible next season, as it will be the first year Russell Westbrook’s monstrous contract extension kicks in. George’s departure would hurt, to be sure, but replacing him with a player like Ariza could make it sting a little less.
An excellent standstill three-point shooter and a long forward who can comfortably defend positions 2 through 4, Ariza could be the perfect role player to slot in next to Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony thanks to his low-usage, low-maintenance style of play.
Since in this scenario we’re discussing Ariza to the Thunder on the stipulation that George signs elsewhere, that would take Oklahoma City from $137.5 million in active salary to $116.8 million, under the luxury tax and with the standard mid-level exception to offer prospective free agents.
Unlike New York, the Thunder may be less willing to offer Ariza the full four years, instead likely opting to go two years just so their future cap space doesn’t get too compromised.
A two-year, $17.2 million contract could be enough to entice Ariza, who won’t pique the interest of the rebuilding teams with cap space this offseason (outside of maybe the Knicks), thus, probably won’t receive much richer offers.
New Orleans Pelicans
Unlike the Thunder, who would only want to go after an Ariza-type if something goes terribly wrong for them this summer, the New Orleans Pelicans have a legitimate need for a big wing with an outside shot, making Ariza an obvious fit for them.
In 2017-18, with Solomon Hill missing most of the year due to injury, the Pelicans merely had one true wing on the roster for the majority of the campaign, Darius Miller, who was fresh off of spending two seasons playing overseas.
No matter what, even with a healthy Hill, New Orleans needs to add another serviceable wing to the rotation, one who can defend and knock down shots from deep.
A player like Ariza.
Unlike the prior two suitors, the Pelicans could have options as to what they can offer Ariza, depending on what they do with DeMarcus Cousins, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The belief is that New Orleans will give Cousins a short-term, high-value contract, just so they can see how he looks returning from an achilles tear before tying themselves down to the big man long term.
Let’s say Cousins re-signs on a one-year, $20 million deal; that would leave New Orelans $8 million under the projected salary cap of $101 million. If the Pelicans renounce the free-agent rights to Jordan Crawford and Ian Clark, that would open up another $3 million in cap room, enough to offer Ariza a year with a first-year value of roughly $11 million.
A three-year, $33 million contract offer from the Pelicans for Ariza would make sense, and could be enough for New Orleans to help fill their void on the wing, especially if the Rockets set their sights on an upgrade at small forward this offseason.
Thanks to the success the two sides have shared over the last four years and the fact Houston own his Bird Rights, the likeliest outcome to Ariza’s free agency is a return to his current team.
That is, unless, general manager Daryl Morey has yet another trick up his sleeve this summer, a followup to the Paul trade from last year.
Veteran NBA reporter David Aldridge has previously stated he believes the Rockets could pull off a shocker by convincing LeBron James to team up with Harden and Paul:
And more recently, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has mentioned Houston as having interest in going after George from the Thunder (via the Oklahoman): “The Houston Rockets, Wojnarowski said, will ‘be aggressive in trying to see if there’s a way to get (George) there.'”
If either of these moves were to happen, that would require for Houston to renounce the rights to all of their prospective free agents in order to open up enough cap space to fit in a max contract. That would include Ariza.
So basically, it would appear that if Ariza finds himself wearing a different uniform next season, that would mean Morey and Co. were able to strike gold on an elite free-agent target this summer. But if the Rockets strike out on the two biggest names set to become available, then the odds are, Ariza will be back with the Rockets next year, and for some time after that.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.