It really shouldn't be that hard of a decision for Randy Wittman to list Martell Webster's name on the starting lineup card for Tuesday's season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers. That it is speaks to the politics of the league, where bigger salaries, psychology and management's hopes dictate lineup decisions more than merit. Still, if we're basing this decision solely on merit, Webster has earned the starting job over Trevor Ariza.
And if Wittman is serious about his talk of a meritocracy, he should give Webster what he deserves.
To be fair to Ariza, much of this is due to Webster balling out. Friend of the blog Kevin Broom, an analytics guy who once ran numbers for the team in a consulting role, noted that, in his system, Webster's preseason production was on par with LeBron James' regular-season production. There's no way Webster keeps that up in the regular season, but it does speak to just how well he played. He was also much better than I expected defensively, and while I'd still rate Ariza higher on that end, Webster did more to make up the gap than I expected.
More importantly, Webster plays off others better than Ariza. Remember when we noted that Ariza's spot-up game needed significant improvement back in September? It still needs significant improvement. Not only is Webster a better perimeter shooter, but he's also much better at faking his shot and making a play off the dribble. Ariza, for all the reasons noted in that September post, can't do those things. The Wizards don't have a ton of perimeter shooters on their roster, so they need to do everything possible to open up the floor. Webster aids in that goal more than Ariza does.
To be fair to Ariza, not having John Wall in the lineup hurts him. He can't run the floor as easily, for one. He can't capitalize on open space gained from Wall being a threat, for another. At the same time, it's not like Webster's skill-set conflicts with Wall's. When Wall comes back, he will need shooters to open the floor for him. Webster's a shooter that will open the floor for Wall. Ergo, he should start.
I guess the only real reason to start Ariza, besides his salary, is that he may not fare well coming off the bench. He hasn't really done it for several years, and his inability to create offense would be even more exposed playing with backups. These are factors that may weigh on Wittman's mind when he makes his final decision.
But really, it's bigger than that. In order to maintain his message to the locker room, Wittman must start the player that performed better in the relevant time frame. That player is Martell Webster, not Trevor Ariza. All those external factors should be less important to Wittman than maintaining the larger message to his team.