Ready to win again, Suns hope Ariza quickens development of young team
PHOENIX — Trevor Ariza is under no illusions.
The 14-year NBA veteran, who signed a reported one-year, $15 million contract with the Phoenix Suns last week, knows the challenge that comes with joining the league’s worst team from a season ago and a franchise in the middle of a long rebuild.
“They’re a young team with a lot of talent that don’t know how to win yet,” Ariza said during an introductory press conference Friday inside Talking Stick Resort Arena.
He wants to help them learn.
Since he entered the league in 2004, Ariza has been on mostly successful teams. He’s been to the postseason nine times and suffered just one sub-30 win season (excluding lockout-shortened 2011-12). He won an NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and went to the Western Conference Finals twice in the last four years while playing for the Houston Rockets.
Phoenix presents an entirely different situation.
In the last three years, the Suns have 68 wins combined — just three more than the 65 wins Ariza’s Rockets had last regular season.
“I know that coming here is going to be a challenge of trying to improve and get better and teaching,” Ariza said. “But I’m up for the challenge.”
“My whole thing that I’m looking to try to preach is: In order to be a great team, you have to be selfless, you have to be a real dog and come out here and compete every night,” he added. “In order to get better, you have to give to your team.”
Phoenix’s front office is betting that Ariza can help bridge the gap with its young roster.
The Suns won 21 games last year, the second-fewest in franchise history. Though McDonough said Friday that making the playoffs this year is “realistic,” the team will be a longshot to climb into the top eight of a loaded Western Conference, even with the addition of a tested veteran like Ariza.
But by bringing Ariza (who averaged 12 points and five rebounds per game during his four seasons with the Rockets) aboard, the Suns are signaling a change in approach. They are done stockpiling draft picks and playing for lottery balls.
“Our goal is to be the most improved team in the league,” McDonough said.
They’re finally ready to start back down the long road toward relevancy. Ariza can be a guide.
“We need his defensive ability and versatility, his shooting ability,” McDonough said. “But I think maybe more than anything, we need his leadership and his winning pedigree.”
New coach Igor Kokoskov told McDonough earlier in the offseason that Ariza was a player the Suns should sign. On Friday, Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones called Ariza “exactly what we’re looking for.”
McDonough described the Ariza signing as a “top priority” this offseason and said the two-way 6-foot-8 small forward was the first player he called when free agency opened last week.
“Phoenix was the most aggressive team and the team that showed the most interest in me,” Ariza said. “As human beings, we all want to feel appreciated and wanted.”
Ariza laughed when asked how he feels about most of his new teammates being “kids” by NBA standards. He’s been in their shoes before — though said “their ceilings might be higher” than his ever was — and benefitted from mentorship from players like Stephon Marbury, Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant, Quentin Richardson and Keyon Dooling when he was breaking into the league.
He also thinks the Suns aren’t “that far off” from being competitive, pointing out that his Rockets needed a buzzer-beater at the end of regulation to beat the Suns in a game last year.
“They have a lot of potential and they really, really, really want to get better,” Ariza said.
Ariza, 33, will become an instant member of the rotation on Kokoskov’s team and potentially a starter on the wing, battling for minutes with the likes of T.J. Warren (24 years old), Josh Jackson (21) and Mikal Bridges (21).
Ariza was listening intently as Jones described his role.
“Those guys, in particular, will have to compete with this guy every day,” Jones said of Ariza. “It’s not a given. He’s not going to give an inch.”
Ariza shook his head.
“If anything, he’s going to force them to take it,” Jones continued.
He might be here to help teach, but Ariza wants to play well too.
“For us, that’s the most critical piece of the development of a winner,” Jones said.
Ariza isn’t the first veteran the Suns have brought aboard, hoping to quicken the development of their young core. But unlike Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley or Leandro Barbosa — other experienced free agents Phoenix has signed in recent years — Ariza is joining at a time of transition for the franchise.
The Suns want to start winning again. He’d be happy to help them get there.
“When you have a talented team, a team that wants to win, a team that wants to get better,” Ariza said, “there’s nothing better than to be a part of that.”