NBA

Lakers hero Ariza had meteoric rise

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Kevin Hench

An accomplished film and television writer, Kevin Hench's latest screenwriting credit is for The Hammer, which stars Adam Carolla. His podcast, Spider and the Henchman, is available every Friday on iTunes. MORE>>
   
 
Outhouse to penthouse? Skid Row to Easy Street? Hell's ditch to God's celestial shore? The metaphors fail to convey the impossible distance Trevor Ariza has covered in the last year.
Date: June 17, 2008. Place: End of the Lakers' bench. In the 2008 NBA playoffs Ariza made a tentative return from a broken foot and averaged 4 1/2 minutes a game for 10 games as the Lakers' title run came up short. Cut to: July 2009. After his extraordinary playoff performance helped boost the Lakers to the championship, Ariza found himself at the center of the basketball universe. Who could have guessed that the interest surrounding a 6.9 points-per-game career scorer could have set in motion a chain of events that would land Ron Artest in Los Angeles and end the short, happy stay of Ariza in his hometown. When free-agent posturing began this week the conventional wisdom was that Ariza wasn't going anywhere. Ariza had won a California state championship as a high schooler in L.A., played one season at UCLA and had now won a title with the Lakers. Could life get better than being a world champion in Laker-crazy Los Angeles? Blue skies, sunshine, adulation, victory parades. Where could the grass be greener? Add in the fact that Laker GM Mitch Kupchak had seen something special in Ariza when few else did and watched him blossom into a critical championship component and it seemed like a lock that the sides would work something out. If either side started out bluffing we'll never know. The Lakers initially refused to go above the $5.6 million mid-level exception. Ariza's reps countered that the offer was so disrespectful they'd go elsewhere (even if that team could not exceed the Lakers' offer). The Lakers countered with Ron Artest. Gulp. With Artest reportedly joining Kobe Bryant in L.A. and Houston making an offer to Ariza it may end up being a straight-up swap of swingmen. (The Blazers, Raptors, Clippers and Cavaliers want Ariza too, but an off-the-record source has told the AP that Ariza to the Rockets is a done deal.) Laker Nation's love affair with Ariza was not unlike South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's dalliance with Maria Belen Chapur: short, passionate and star-crossed. L.A. is Ariza's soul mate, but — alas — they cannot be together. It's almost inconceivable that Laker fans — or any fans for that matter — would one day be mourning the departure of Ariza. But the 24-year-old lock-down defender-turned-three-point-sniper picked a rather propitious time to string together the best 23-game stretch of his career. In one year he went from non-factor to X-factor, the missing piece to a championship puzzle. Has someone's stock ever risen so rapidly? If Ariza were a scuba diver he'd have decompression sickness from coming up too quickly. At the end of a regular season in which he shot 31.9 percent from behind the arc Ariza was a 29.9 percent career 3-point shooter. Given that empirical data, you could hardly blame teams for throwing defenders at Kobe on the wing and at Pau Gasol on the block and inviting Ariza to beat them from downtown. The only problem was Ariza delivered. Again and again. He made 40-of-84 3-pointers in the playoffs, a staggering 47.6 percent, an almost 20 percent bump from his career percentage. The Jazz were the first team to meet the new, improved Ariza. In dropping two hard-fought games in Los Angeles to begin the first round, Utah held Kobe to a mere 50 points. But Ariza buried 6-of-7 3-pointers in the two games and buried any hope the Jazz had of stealing one in L.A. In Round 2 against the Rockets, the Lakers were tied at 1-1, 2-2 and 3-3. In games 3, 5 and 7 Ariza combined to go 6-of-9 from downtown as L.A. cruised in all three of those pivotal games. Ariza sealed Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Nuggets with his late steal of an inbounds pass, showing off his freakish closing speed and length. With the series even at a game apiece Ariza scored 16 points on eight shots (3-of-5 from downtown) as the Lakers won Game 3. In the close-out Game 6, Ariza went 7-of-9 from the floor and 3-of-4 from behind the arc for 17 points in 22 near-perfect minutes. Ariza also delivered what may have been the biggest shot of the Finals against his former team. The Magic had erased a six-point fourth-quarter deficit and taken a three-point lead with a 15-6 run in Game 4 and looked to be on their way to evening the series at two games apiece as the Lakers bumbled through another possession. But with the shot clock about to expire, Ariza drained a 29-footer — during another 3-for-4 effort from deep — and the Lakers ended up winning in OT. So while it is surprising that he looks to be leaving L.A., it's no surprise that Ariza caught the attention of NBA general managers this spring. A lock-down defender who can shoot the 3? That resume earned James Posey a four-year, $25M contract from the Hornets last year. Posey is 32. Ariza turned 24 last week. While Ariza was a reverberating revelation in the playoffs, Ron Artest, 29, has quietly resurrected his career since the Malice in the Palace. Discounting his seven-game season in '04-'05, Artest has improved his 3-point percentage every year since 2004, draining 39.9 percent this past season in Houston. But like Ariza, he earns his dough on the defensive end. And for Kobe Bryant it's no doubt worth $18M (the cost of the three-year deal Artest has apparently agreed to) not to have to go up against the super-physical Artest anymore. Of course now it looks like he will have to square off against a younger, quicker, more athletic defender when the Lakers play the Rockets. Wherever Ariza lands, the journey has been supersonic.
Tagged: Jazz, James Posey, Kobe Bryant, Magic, Pelicans, Pau Gasol, Trevor Ariza, Cavaliers, Nuggets, Rockets, Metta World Peace, Clippers, Lakers

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