He may not be the flashiest guy in the league. He certainly isn't the most popular player on the team, with James Harden and Dwight Howard running the show. However, all season long, Ariza quietly was one of the most important pieces for the Rockets and all their success.
Especially throughout the playoffs, Ariza's agility on defense was the key to Houston's defensive strategy. In all three rounds, the Rockets switched on every pick, which is very difficult to pull off. The reason the Rockets and Golden State Warriors, to name a couple, were so efficient defensively is because they utilized athletic lineups that can switch on everything.
This would not have been possible if it weren't for Ariza. Throughout the regular season, he would match up on the opposing team's best player. It didn't matter if it was a point guard or power forward; coach Kevin McHale was putting Ariza up to the task.
So when the playoffs rolled around, night after night Ariza had a new challenge. He manned up against Chris Paul and Monta Ellis. He chased around J.J. Redick and Klay Thompson. He even bodied up Dirk Nowitzki and Blake Griffin. Houston may have been in the bottom half of defensive efficiency in the postseason, but there were a handful of dominant stretches, such as the Game 6 comeback in L.A., when the D was outstanding with Ariza and Dwight as the anchors.
The past two seasons, with Chandler Parsons as the starting small forward, the Rockets were hapless defensively. Despite the offensive powerhouses those years, Houston could not advance past the first round because of its inability to defend when it mattered. Ariza changed that.
Dwight is of course a beast in the paint, but the perimeter defense needed an immediate upgrade. By replacing Parsons, Ariza's defensive prowess allowed the Rockets to refocus on the other end and protect the basket. The return of a healthy Patrick Beverley and Harden's summer playing for assistant coach Tom Thibodeau with USA Basketball certainly helped as well.
With his tremendous impact on defense, Ariza's contributions on the other end were really a nice bonus. He was a pretty streaky shooter throughout the season, going through some good and some brutal stretches.
To start the season, he couldn't miss, hitting 60 percent from deep. Of course he drastically cooled off, including a stretch where he shot under 50 percent in every game for nearly a month. He finished the season at a somewhat respectable 35 percent from beyond the arc. In the playoffs, that number crept up to 37.5 percent, including some big ones. It's Ariza's playmaking ability that comes up a little short.
That's where Houston missed Parsons the most. Harden even admitted that the Rockets were missing an additional playmaker during their playoff run to step up when the Beard was struggling, as reported by Brett Pollakoff for NBC Sports.
When run off the three-point line, Ariza is not nearly as effective as Parsons at attacking the basket. He got better at dribbling in the paint as the year went on, but he is generally not a very good finisher at the rim. However, Ariza averaged a solid 12.8 points per game and would quietly put up a lot of points under the radar in several games.
By now, Rockets fans realize that Ariza's three-and-D style of play is a much better fit. Parsons' hefty contract just simply wasn't worth the money when Ariza's talents and championship pedigree were available as a replacement for half the price.
A lot of the focus went to Harden, who finished second in the MVP race. Dwight was applauded for his heroic playoff efforts coming off of an injury-riddled season. Even the bench brigade led by Josh Smith and Corey Brewer received a lot of credit for taking over games with great energy. However, it was Ariza's quiet yet critical role of revamping the Rockets defense that carried them to new heights in the 21st century.