It's been a couple days since the Washington Wizards acquired Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor from the New Orleans Hornets, but we've yet to have a real Hornets expert weigh in on the two new Wizards. Therefore, I decided to reach out to Rohan from SB Nation's Hornets blog At The Hive to give us the lowdown on what we can expect from both players.
Here's our conversation:
Me: It seems to me that we have two teams taking very different views on the value of cap space. On the one hand, you have the Wizards implicitly (and explicitly) suggesting this kind of certainty is better than the unknown of wooing free agents and the use of cap space for unbalanced trades. On the other hand, you have the Hornets embracing this approach. In general, which do you think is a smarter strategy?
Rohan: I don't know that there's a "correct" answer, per se, because it's so heavily contextual. For a team without stars on its roster necessarily, gravitating towards the certainty of a decently competitive team is defensible. For a team like the Hornets, who have a star in Eric Gordon and a potential future superstar in the mold of a Garnett defensively in Anthony Davis, I think cap space is absolutely the way to go. I see "cap space" often used as a pejorative, synonymous with passive, wishful thinking. To an extent, that's justified, especially in a small market like New Orleans. It's a bit silly to expect stars to come play for the Hornets, but the thing is, the second tier of good players - the elite role players, the guys that provide the extraneous skills so critical to team construction - is generally far less discriminating. With Gordon and Davis on board, New Orleans can reasonably expect to go after the great, if not superstar level, players in the coming years, and that's critical to me.
So to answer your question - I don't have an answer. Depends on the situation more than anything. It made sense for New Orleans because the simultaneous presence of a star, possible superstar, very solid bench, and 30 million dollars in cap space is a rare one indeed. But I don't think that implies that Washington losing its cap space is the worst thing either.
Me: Generally, can Okafor and Ariza still play? Do you agree with Ernie Grunfeld's characterization that both are still in their primes?
Rohan: Okafor can still play. Well, both can still play, but Ariza comes with some.. asterisks. But to start with Okafor, I think the "prime" characterization is probably accurate. He's a very solid rebounder (I wouldn't buy his lowered rates from the lockout year as indicative of a larger trend; SSS and he was unhealthy), he excels at long tap-outs for offensive boards he has no business getting, and he's a solid screen setter. Obviously relying on him for offense will never be a smart move, but he generally can take smaller matchups if they present themselves. He's also a very positionally aware defender; he'll make all the appropriate rotations with ample anticipation and is strong and laterally quick enough to defend the majority of NBA post options. When Monty Williams joined the Hornets in 2010, he designed a defensive system meshing some aspects of zone as well as Thibodeau's strong-side help scheme, with Okafor as the centerpiece. New Orleans ranked in the top-5 defensively up until January when the majority of the team fell apart with injuries (Chris Paul, David West, and Ariza all going down). If I could describe Okafor in a word, it'd be intelligent. Both ends. It's very clear watching him play just how much effort he puts into preparation, and that certainly allows him to offset his height (6'9" without shoes).
As for Ariza - he'd be great in a system that placed a solid, creative wing alongside him. When he first caught my eye in New York, he was used alongside Jamal Crawford at times. In Orlando, he played with Hedo Turkoglu, a guy that we scoff at now but was generally a solid player 5 years ago. During his hugely successful run with Los Angeles, Ariza ran with Kobe Bryant of course. When he got to Houston, I think it was the first time where Ariza himself was the "solid, creative wing"... or was asked to be. It backfired miserably, because he's not that kind of player. New Orleans dialed back his role a little bit, but again, there was nobody on the perimeter to offset his ball-handling deficiencies. And so I can sit here and tell you that I think Ariza's 2010-2011 ranks among the worst by any wing player in the NBA's modern era (it truly was), but that's unfair to him. I genuinely believe that the key to maximizing his production is by ensuring that he's not the primary perimeter option. Pair him with a player that can put the ball on the floor, that can drive to the rim, that's big enough to guard the two, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Ariza return to prominence. And I think you (and all your readers) know exactly who that player might be..
Me: Both players have a reputation of being excellent defensive players, but how would you rate their abilities on that end?
Rohan: Top notch. Both guys. Ariza was the primary perimeter defender in that top-5 defensive scheme I referenced above (along with Chris Paul). I know some analysts like Kevin Pelton have criticized his upright style, which is fair, but against players more his size and at his position (i.e., not the super laterally quick 2s and bigger 1s we have now), he's just fantastic. Strong. Extremely good anticipation. Very active in passing lanes. Name a perimeter oriented 3 in the NBA, and Ariza has guarded him extremely successfully at least a couple times. As much as I like the trade for the Hornets, I can't imagine that Monty Williams is very pleased with losing (far and away) his two best defenders, and two of the most defensively aware and skilled guys in the league at their positions.
Me: There's lots of talk about Ariza's shot selection, but some claim it has improved. What do you think of that? Is there any way he could be an offensive asset?
Rohan: I'd echo my above thoughts and also note that December-March. was Ariza's best stretch as a Hornet offensively.
Here's a piece I wrote in February on how his game may have evolved, if you're looking for something a bit longer.
Me: The Wizards seem to like the character of Ariza and Okafor and think they will slot in well in the locker room. Is there any reason for them to think otherwise?
Rohan: With Okafor, absolutely. One of the most professional guys we have in the league today. I'm a bit surprised though that Ariza's mentioned along with that same sentiment. Don't get me wrong; I don't mean to impugn his character in the slightest. By all accounts, he's a great teammate. But he's also one of my "Body Language All-Stars" - guys whose body languages almost cartoonishly reflect poor stretches of play. He'll droop, slump his shoulders when things aren't going his way, and so forth. Personally, I'm not one to put too much stock into that kind of thing, but I can see it not sitting well with fans (negative body language) if the team isn't doing so well (I know some Houston fans will cite that with regularity when reviewing his time with them).
Thanks to Rohan for the answers.