Small forward Trevor Ariza is the missing piece that the Houston Rockets need to target in free agency this summer. His ability to contribute on both ends of the court would be huge for the team and they should do whatever it takes to bring Ariza back to Houston.
The Rockets have made a huge splash in each of the last two offseasons. In 2012, they pulled off a huge steal in what looks like a one-sided trade with Oklahoma City for guard James Harden. That same year, they landed point guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik.
This summer, there's less of a need to shake up the world. With Howard, Harden and Chandler Parsons, the team already has a solid core to build a championship contender around. Emerging talents like Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones help solidify the starting rotation.
What the Rockets truly need in free agency is someone who can fix a leaky perimeter defense as well as add a little offensive spark to a mundane second unit.
That's where Ariza comes in. The 28-year-old (will be 29 in June) is having a nice season with the Washington Wizards. He's averaging 14.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals (12th in the NBA) per game. He's also shooting 45 percent from the field, including 41 percent from behind the arc.
By comparison, nobody on Houston's bench is averaging double-digits in scoring (with the exception of Lin, who has bounced in and out of the starting lineup). Also, outside of seldom-used forward Robert Covington, no Rocket is shooting better than 37 percent from three.
It may be unfair to compare the numbers of key reserves to a guy currently starting for a playoff team, but the point still remains: The Rockets need another scorer coming off the bench. Ariza's athleticism and range makes him a perfect fit.
Defensively, the Rockets don't have another stopper on the outside besides Beverley. Lin and Parsons have had their moments, but the defense still needs work. Meanwhile, Harden may be one of the worst defenders in the league.
They could try a smaller lineup with Beverley, Harden, Ariza, Parsons and Howard. That would give Houston a bevy of shooters on the outside to space the floor while Dwight does his thing in the paint.
Another idea is a bigger rotation that could be used when the team is in desperate need of a stop. Harden could run point with Ariza playing the 2. Parsons would play his natural small forward position, while Asik and Howard round out the rest of the group.
Asik and Howard together would give Houston a huge edge inside, both on the glass and defensively. Harden, who dominates the ball regardless of the position he plays, is the team's best playmaker. He could create for himself or look for Ariza and Parsons on the outside.
Additionally, it puts three of the Rockets' best four defenders on the floor without limiting their offense too much. With Ariza's versatility and skill set, Houston can throw a number of different looks at opponents.
Let's look at some of Ariza's tape from this season. Oddly enough, some of Ariza's best performances this year have come against Houston. On Feb. 12, the former Rocket lit his old mates up to the tune of 32 points, 11 rebounds and three steals in a close defeat.
Ariza also went 10-for-14 from three that night. A look at this highlight reel will make two things very obvious. First, Houston's "attempt" to stop Ariza on the outside was pathetic. You rarely see a Rockets player put a hand in Ariza's face as he's launching shots from behind the arc.
Second, like any good spot-up shooter, Ariza is going to drain open shots all day. If Ariza is getting easy looks in Washington, imagine what he can do with a better offense in Houston.
Next, there's Ariza's career night against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 1. Much like the previous game against the Rockets, Ariza feasted on some lackluster defense and finished with a career-high 40 points. A brunt of his offense came from downtown, where he went 8-of-12.
This highlight reel doesn't vary too much from the last one with the exception of a couple plays. At the 1:17 mark, Ariza shows off those defensive chops by stepping front of a pass intended for Michael Carter-Williams and going the distance for the easy bucket.
My favorite play of this night comes at just under a minute and half in. The ball momentarily gets away from Ariza. He then regains control and attacks the basket, drawing the sweet and-1 at the buzzer.
Lastly, at 2:28, he displays some nice hustle by beating two Sixers for the rebound and the layup.
In both videos, you see what Ariza brings to the table. He can score in a variety of ways, particularly from the outside. He plays with a lot of energy. Most importantly, he plays good defense and can generate turnovers. There aren't many current Rockets that can offer all of the above.
Now, acquiring Ariza doesn't come without obstacles. For starters, Houston has a lot of money on the books next season. Lin and Asik are owed nearly $15 million apiece. Howard will make a little over $21 million, while Harden is due $14.7 million.
In total, the Rockets will pay out close $72 million in salary next season, according to HoopsHype.com. Meanwhile, Ariza is making $7.7 million and having the best season of his career. Despite getting ready to finish his 10th season in the NBA, he's still relatively young.
Unless Ariza is willing to take a pay cut to come to Houston, the Rockets are going to have to move some money around to bring him in. That means trading an expensive role player like Lin or Asik. In the end, it will be worth it if Ariza returns to H-Town.
For the first time in a long time, Houston will enter free agency without having to swing for the fences. With a few finishing touches in the offseason, this team could compete for titles for years to come. They have a young core with a group of prospects on the rise.
Of course, that doesn't mean general manager Daryl Morey won't try to make headlines for the third straight year.
Morey is a big-game fisherman and there's a 235-pound marlin named Carmelo Anthony up for grabs this summer. The Rockets don't need 'Melo to compete for a title, but they didn't really need Dwight Howard last summer either.
The expectation is that Morey will try to make a move for Anthony. According to a report from Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski back in March, "the Rockets believe they can shed the contracts necessary to offer a third near-max deals alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden".
A play for 'Melo would be ill-advised, but understandable. A trio of Howard, Harden and Anthony (assuming Parsons is dealt in a sign-and-trade) would be devastating offensively.
Still, the wise move would be for Morey to suppress his urge to be adventurous and build off of what he already has. That plan should start and end with Trevor Ariza. It may not be as flashy as bringing in 'Melo, but it will help the team more in the long run.