At first look, the Houston Rockets struck out completely this offseason. General manager Daryl Morey offloaded Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to clear cap space for Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony, neither of whom signed with Houston. Chandler Parsons walked in restricted free agency for nothing.
The only significant piece to come aboard was Trevor Ariza, a career role player who won't vault the Rockets into championship contention. For all of Morey's cap maneuvering and asset flipping that has turned him into one of the most polarizing GMs in the league, it looks like the naysayers came out on top.
What's lost in the supposed "fiasco" offseason of the Houston Rockets is that the team didn't get much worse. Sure, they'll lose the backup rim protection Asik provided, and last year's second-round pick Isaiah Canaan might not be as good as Jeremy Lin right away.
But Ariza is a bargain in today's NBA economy on an $8 million annual salary, and he doesn't eat up a significant chunk of cap space heading into next offseason. So while the Rockets may have missed out on the big-name free agents this offseason, they'll have another crack at it next year.
Then there's the matter of Ariza's on-court abilities, which fit in nicely with Houston's offensive philosophy and defensive shortcomings. Thirty-three percent of Houston's field-goal attempts last season were three-pointers, a league-best mark that is only expected to rise next year (according to NBA.com).
Ariza, who will replace Parsons in the starting lineup, is a catch-and-shoot player who will spot up around the penetration of James Harden and Canaan—much like Parsons has done throughout his Houston career. What Ariza might lack in off-the-bounce game that Parsons doesn't is made up for in shooting, as Ariza's 40.7 percent shooting from distance on 5.7 attempts per game actually outpaced Parsons' 37 percent on 4.7 attempts last year.
Where Ariza dominates Parsons, and can plug up a hole that plagued Houston throughout the year, is on the defensive end. Parsons was always a solid team defender, but his interest and effort has always been focused on offense. Ariza made his reputation in the league as a defender before building his three-point shot, and it's an area in which the Rockets will need him to thrive.
Due to Harden's dominance of the basketball, Houston doesn't actually need its point guards to handle much of the scoring. This suits starter Patrick Beverley well, allowing him to conserve energy for his favored defensive end, harassing what's becoming a league full of high-caliber point guards.
But the shifting landscape of NBA offenses has moved the ball to the perimeter and away from interior play, meaning teams feature multiple ball-handlers with the ability to penetrate to the rim. So while Beverley succeeded in slowing down opposing point guards, it was actually the 2s and 3s that killed Houston.
Harden and Parsons were the most picked on defenders, with neither particularly invested in deterring penetration. This in turn put a lot of pressure on Dwight Howard, who was unable to clean up every mistake. Though he carried them to the 12th-best defensive rating in the league, pairing Howard's rim protection with even league-average perimeter defense can easily vault that rating into the top six or seven.
Don't be surprised if Ariza pushes Houston to that level next season. He's definitely not an elite defender, but he'll at least slow down the barrage of drives and subsequent foul trouble that Howard faced night in and night out.
What's more is that Ariza's versatility in guarding both 2s and 3s will allow head coach Kevin McHale to properly hide Harden while he's on the floor, keeping him off of the stronger perimeter players and sticking him on spot-up shooters and lesser offensive threats.
This wasn't an option last season, because starting Parsons at the 3 left Houston in a bind: Parsons certainly can't guard NBA 2s, and Beverley was stuck on the 1. This left Harden to fend for himself against a strong crop of NBA shooting guards, and he got burned often.
Ariza isn't Kawhi Leonard or Tony Allen, but he can battle shooting guards in one-on-one situations with reasonable success. In almost every matchup, he won't be the quicker player. But his length, overall speed and smarts allow him to make up for this shortcoming.
Think of it like LeBron James guarding Tony Parker: While Parker can run circles around James, he has difficulty getting a quality shot off because of James' ability to contest every look. For every step that Parker gains on James, James' overall speed allows him to recover as Parker gathers to shoot. Add in his significant length advantage, and what looks like a window to shoot the basketball closes almost immediately.
This is the advantage Ariza has on smaller shooting guards and what he'll have to rely on as a Rocket. Take a look at him guarding Dwyane Wade last year during this isolation play (see below), in which Wade attacks the rim.
After Wade hits Ariza with a quick hesitation dribble, he's able to explode left and put Ariza on his shoulder. On most drives, angling a defender against your shoulder provides an adequate advantage to shoot a floater or layup. The defender is pinned on the opposite side of the basketball and can't contest properly.
Players with greater length, however, make up for this discrepancy by simply reaching over and higher. What seems to be an easy layup becomes that much more difficult due to an outstretched hand that reaches further. Here, Wade has to stop, pump and fire up a difficult, high-arcing floater because his initial advantage is negated by Ariza's length.
Houston has sorely lacked this type of perimeter defense the last few seasons. Harden has expended so much energy on offense that he barely has enough for the other end of the floor, and the personnel that surrounds him limits his opportunities for rest on defense.
Ariza will help to solve this problem. You'll notice that in the play above, Bradley Beal is guarding Toney Douglas—a significantly easier matchup that allows him to conserve energy. These are the types of players that Harden will now be able to guard.
Moving forward, the Rockets still need a big piece to truly contend in the very competitive Western Conference. But that doesn't mean that Ariza won't be a part of that winning future, as his skills will be invaluable to their overall improvement. He's the type of player that championship contenders succeed with and has already proven with the Los Angeles Lakers that he's willing to fulfill and thrive in a specific role.
For Houston to win, they'll need him to do exactly that.