The Portland Trail Blazers find themselves in a precarious position this offseason. Along with all the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus situation and the continuation of this season, they have several key decisions to make about who stays on the roster for next year, with the contracts of players like Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside expiring whenever the season concludes.
One of the big decisions that they will have to make is what to do with midseason acquisition Trevor Ariza. The 35-year-old forward started all 21 games he played with the Blazers, averaging 11.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists per contest during that time. While the numbers are solid, there are several factors to consider — including contract, role, and more — when deciding whether to keep Ariza or not. So should the Blazers retain him or let him go? Let’s dive in.
How did he actually play?
As good players get older, they come to a fork in the road where they have to decide to follow one of two paths: chase the ring or the chase the money. Two years ago, it looked like Ariza had definitively chosen the latter when he left Houston to sign a one-year $15 million contract with Phoenix. After being traded to Washington and doing statistically well, he then signed a two-year $25 million contract with Sacramento. He looked like he was putting in minimal effort and averaged only six points a game with the Kings, his lowest output since the 2007-08 season when he averaged 5.5 points per contest.
But the trade to Portland seemed to energize him. He immediately stepped up as an important role-player for the Blazers. As John Hollinger put it in his assessment of the Blazers’ future with Jason Quick, he just remembered how to play basketball again. He shot 40% from three in over 33 minutes a game, with his corner threes proving exceptionally handy.
That corner three makes him a great companion to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as they draw defenders towards them when looking to score. In catch and shoot situations, Ariza shot 38.4% from three this season. As our very own Nate Mann pointed out, he made almost 46% of his threes he took from the corner. The ability to make open shots when presented the opportunity is invaluable to this offense.
On the other end of the floor, it’s hard to judge Ariza when the rest of the team is so horrible defensively. Still, he was active enough on that end to be one of the better wing defenders on the team. He even proved capable of forcing turnovers — something Portland ranked 29th in — averaging 1.6 steals per contest. He wasn’t an amazing player on that end, but he was most certainly not sieve either, which is more than you can say about a lot of players on the team.
Oh yeah, and he had an all-time “don’t mess with me youngin” move when Trae Young tried to nutmeg him. Another tally in the pros column.
The other guys
Ariza isn’t the only guy that the Blazers may have to carve out a role for, with a few players either returning from injury or potentially returning via free agency.
For starters, let’s talk about Melo. He was 100% a total desperation signing after Rodney Hood’s Achilles tear, but he panned out for the most part. He still shoots a maddening amount of long, contested two-point shots and fadeaway post ups, but he filled the role of tertiary shot creator just fine. When either Lillard or McCollum weren’t on the floor, Melo filled in as a capable scorer, not ideal but was better than the alternatives.
Anthony doesn’t play defense well and he isn’t going to get better at age 36. He showed that he has value as a three-point shooter, but even then he doesn’t do it as a spot-up guy nearly enough. If he comes back, his role on the team more likely than not will have to be drastically reduced with the return of Hood and Zach Collins. Does that sit well with Anthony, the man who once laughed at the thought of coming off the bench? Probably not, so at that point why keep him while dumping Ariza?
Hood and Collins both factor into this decision as well. While Hood is nursing his way back a notoriously difficult injury, Collins is set to come back from his shoulder tear that he suffered on October 27th. Back in April Collins was reportedly on track with his recovery while Hood was looking strong five months after his injury.
Both of those guys should be back by the 2020-21 season, and even if Hood isn’t as good as before, he will eat up minutes at the three. Same with Collins at the four spot. If you’re Portland, do you still bring back Ariza knowing you have those guys coming back and others like Nassir Little and potentially Anthony also taking minutes? Or do you keep Ariza as insurance for Hood and Collins and let Little develop on the bench for another year?
While he doesn’t affect Ariza positionally, Hassan Whiteside does affect him financially. Whiteside won’t make the $27 million he made this year, but he should still demand a healthy amount of money in free agency since he puts up big stats. Whether he chases that money here or somewhere else is the big question. If he chases it here, that makes paying Ariza his money next year more difficult. If not, then paying Ariza becomes more palatable. Whiteside won’t take playing time from Ariza, but if he stays he will take money.
So what about the money/cap?
How the money affects everything is the million dollar question (I would say no pun intended, but that would be lying). And while we don’t fully understand how COVID-19 has affected the salary cap, we do know the Blazers have their work cut out for them.
Ariza is set to make $12.8 million dollars next season, and while I outlined what he did well above, that’s still a good chunk of change for a guy who’s really limited to being a role player. However, only $1.8 million of it is guaranteed. The Blazers could waive him and save $11 million in the process, which would be highly valuable in a post-coronavirus world with a drastically reduced salary cap.
Ariza eats up a good chunk of cap space for this team as it stands, and the two players with player options (Hood and Mario Hezonja) will likely opt in, so that locks the money in for those guys as well. There’s also the possibility that they resign Melo and Whiteside to team-friendly deals, although most likely at max one of them will come back. But still, even one of those players coming back makes the money that much tighter.
Whiteside not coming back makes it easiest to keep Ariza. While our very own Dave Deckard noted back in March that it makes little sense to keep Ariza while dumping Whiteside, it might be safest to assume now that the seven-footer is gone. Whiteside will more likely than not be against a bench role with the numbers he puts up and no matter how much he insists it would work, he and Jusuf Nurkic won’t co-exist like he thinks they will. Ariza fits better cap-wise with this team, and keeping him and his expiring deal also makes him available for a potential in-season trade should the need arise.
There’s still a million questions regarding the cap. How badly affected was the BRI (Basketball Related Income) from this season? Can the escrow account be used to alleviate cap issues? What about cap smoothing? There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but there is a path to keeping Ariza at least.
So what should they do?
If it was my money (and it isn’t), I would find a way to keep Ariza. Yes he will be another year older, and yes he will be “just” a role player despite being the fourth-highest paid player on the team (assuming Whiteside leaves), but his play last year was enough to justify it, and keeping him provides the Blazers with more wiggle room than expected.
Ariza as a player fits well alongside both Lillard and McCollum and was one of the better defenders on the team this season. Keeping Ariza while letting Whiteside and Melo go keeps the team from getting too crowded with guys like Hood and Collins set to return while also making fiscal sense for the team. If Ariza doesn’t work and forgets how to play basketball again, his expiring deal at least makes him an enticing trade piece. The Blazer’s have some tough decisions, but the easiest one should be keeping Ariza.