The Washington Wizards are stuck in basketball purgatory, facing the franchise-altering decision of whether to pursue the postseason or rebuild the roster.
Maybe Trevor Ariza’s return to the nation’s capital will provide a sense of direction to the underperforming organization.
General manager Ernie Grunfield made waves around the NBA on Monday by trading Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers to the Suns for Ariza, who played for Washington from 2012 to 2014. Phoenix waived Rivers on Tuesday, while Ariza dropped 19 points -- his most since opening night -- and swiped a season-high six steals against the Hawks.
Ariza does a little bit of everything for the Wizards. He is a familiar locker room presence, a guy who meshed well with John Wall and Bradley Beal.
He is a defender, a guy who averages 1.5 steals per game and 2.4 defensive wins shares per season throughout his 15-year tenure in the NBA. He is a shooter, a guy who shoots 35.3 percent from beyond the perimeter for his career. He is a veteran, a guy who is one season removed from nearly propelling the Chris-Paul-less Rockets to an NBA Finals berth against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Washington made this move to inject life into the locker room and justify its long-term investments in Wall and Beal, who are under team control until 2023 and 2021 respectively. Grunfield will have Otto Porter Jr. for at least another year, and Dwight Howard could return in 2019-2020 if he accepts his player option worth roughly $5.6 million. Ariza will make $15 million this season before testing the waters of free agency again, but could opt to stay with the Wizards if the sides can reach an agreement.
Losing Oubre Jr. and Rivers is arguably just as beneficial for Washington in this deal. Grunfield sheds roughly $850,000 worth of salary, Oubre -- an expiring contract -- was reportedly not returning to D.C. following the campaign due to the money already owed to Wall, Beal and Porter Jr., and Rivers was on the brink of losing his spot in the rotation anyways.
The Wizards are still on the outside looking in, with an 11th-ranked Eastern Conference record of 12-19, which places them behind the likes of Detroit (14-14), Orlando (14-15) and Brooklyn (14-18).
Ariza will be a force in the starting lineup and provide production that Oubre Jr. and Rivers would not be able to match, but it does not guarantee a third straight playoff appearance.
So what exactly is Grunfield envisioning? And how exactly does head coach Scott Brooks manage a playoff-caliber-yet-struggling roster with injuries, drama and long-term contracts?
Ariza does not necessarily answer either of these questions, but he does boost the current construction of the lineup, clears room for another player and frees the locker room of words that reportedly came from this former teammate…
Oubre Jr. and Rivers were not going to play a substantial role in Washington for the future. Ariza -- a player who has thrived shooting alongside Wall before -- will. That alone should stir a winning formula to put the Wizards in contention for a lower postseason seed come April 2019.