"I don't think I had anything to do with it -- that was Pau Gasol -- but one move happens and then another move happens and everything clicked," Ariza said. "That made all of it go away."
Now Ariza is heading to New Orleans, nearly a month after Chris Paul reportedly put together a wish list of other teams for whom he would prefer to play. Once again, Ariza is being sent into a potential crisis, with the hope of quelling it. Ariza alone will not be able to appease Paul -- he may need another Gasol for that -- but he has at least helped defuse him, and in the case of frustrated superstars, that's often the most important step.
Paul's wish list was reported by CBSSports.com on July 22, which happened to be the same day Dell Demps was hired as the Hornets' general manager. As Demps walked through the New Orleans airport, fans were already asking him, "What is going on with Chris? Are you trading him?" Fortunately for the Hornets, Demps' interpersonal skills are much better than his timing, because when he met with Paul four days later, he convinced him the organization was on the upswing.
Demps opened a dialogue with Paul and asked him in early August what he would think about adding Ariza, a 6-foot-8 ball hawk who excels in transition and started for the Lakers in the 2009 playoffs, parlaying his role on that championship run into a five-year contract with Houston, where he was responsible for creating more offense and shot just 39.4 percent. Ariza was dogged by constant comparisons to Ron Artest, who traded places with him in the offseason, and tweaked him relentlessly in the aftermath, once tossing his sneakers into the stands at Staples Center.
"Good luck with that," Paul told Demps, skeptical that the Rockets would give up Ariza so soon into a long-term contract. But Demps had been targeting Ariza since the interview process, looking for someone who could defend elite wings and keep pace with Paul in transition. Ariza checked both boxes.
Demps had one obvious trade chip, backup point guard Darren Collison, but if Demps believed he would eventually lose Paul, it would make no sense to ship a potential successor like Collison. By sending Collison to Indiana in a three-team deal for Ariza, Demps made a play for the present, and for Paul. He can envision Paul's feeding Ariza on the break, and in the half-court, drawing defenders and finding Ariza for open three-pointers.
"Chris is excited because when he's running up and down, now there will be somebody ahead of him," Demps said. "This is not just about Chris helping Trevor. It's also about Trevor helping Chris."
Ariza found out about the move at the Boys & Girls Club -- not in Greenwich, Conn., but San Juan Capistrano, Calif. -- where he was giving a five-day clinic to benefit his asthma foundation. Ariza, who used to need an inhaler at halftime, was mortified to tell the campers he had to cut out early for a news conference in New Orleans. They had been drilling him all week on why he left the Lakers, and now he was leaving the team he left the Lakers for.
"I don't expect you to understand right now," Ariza told the campers, "but later on you will learn that there are things you have to do in the business you choose that are out of your control."
He, as much as any young player, should know. Ariza is 25 and already on his fifth NBA team, having sat the bench in New York and Orlando before developing a three-point stroke in Los Angeles. Ariza had a tendency to kick his legs and twist his body when he shot, so when he broke his foot in 2008, Lakers coaches viewed it as a blessing. Because Ariza could no longer move his feet, he was forced to simplify his motion. But last season in Houston, some of the bad habits returned. Ariza is spending this summer working out in San Diego, trying to regain the rhythm he found in L.A.
If he was ever upset that the Rockets gave up on him after only one year, those frustrations were eased by Paul.
"Since the Hornets have been making some moves, he seems more comfortable with things that are going on," Ariza said. "I don't want to say I'm a part of anybody staying where they're at. The goal is just to get better together."
The Hornets play in the shadow of the Superdome, a constant reminder of how far they remain from a championship. They will likely need another major move to pacify Paul and catapult themselves into the Western Conference race, but then again, the Suns were largely dismissed heading into last season and they rode a premier point guard to the conference finals.
The Hornets are entering their audition period, Paul taking notes, Ariza striving to make this one go as smoothly as the last.