Washington Wizards' small forward Trevor Ariza will miss the next three weeks of the season with a calf injury. Here's how the team will adjust.
The Washington Wizards' victory over Lebron James and the Miami Heat featured a lot of good luck. Struggling players like A.J. Price and Kevin Seraphin couldn't seem to miss, while Miami's legendary shooters spent the fourth quarter bricking open threes. Heat power forward Shane Battier, who has posted incredible on and off-court numbers this year, was out, killing the depth of an already-weak bench, while the Wizards had Nene Hilario back for only his fifth game of the year. In short, everything that could go right for the Wizards did.
The one player who didn't benefit from some of that good luck is small forward Trevor Ariza. After a solid start to the game, Ariza hurt his calf while picking up a steal, forcing him to exit the game and likely sidelining him for three weeks.
While it's unfortunate any time a player gets hurt, this injury could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Wizards. Brought in as a high-priced veteran, Ariza has badly under-performed this year, shooting only 35% from the floor and providing defense that's more good than great. Meanwhile, the players behind him are all solid and can provide the team with much better outside shooting than the streaky Ariza.
It's unknown at this point just how much the Wizards' rotations will be altered as a result of Ariza's absence. There have been rumblings of frustration among players with the team's ever-changing rotations and lineups, and the Ariza injury could add fuel to this fire. Ariza's minutes and role seemed to change on a daily basis, but he still managed to give the team an average of 25 minutes each night. More likely than not, Martell Webster, who's outplayed Ariza almost every night, will see an uptick in his playing time, while the remaining small forward minutes will be divided between Chris Singleton and Cartier Martin.
Martin in particular can make a good case for more playing time, especially off of the bench. An excellent shooter, Martin can provide the team with more floor spacing and better shot selection than Ariza. The trade-off is that the team's defense should take a hit, as Martin is a B-athlete who lacks Ariza's instincts for steals, as well as his underrated ability to consistently close out on shooters.
Webster's increased role might actually prove to be a net-positive. While Ariza has largely under-performed since coming to D.C., Webster has been something of a revelation as a perimeter defender and occasional bucket-getter with the second unit. His defense will suffer a bit if he has to guard more starting small forwards, but he's still a decent defensive player who should be able to do an at least passable job.
Singleton could see more minutes as a result of Ariza's absence, too. Singleton was a terrible, borderline unplayable offensive player last year while playing the majority of his minutes at small forward. He's rebounded a bit this season, though, and has begun to look like a very solid undersized power forward who can match up well with the NBA's current legion of stretch-fours and converted wings. Moreover, his problems with dribbling aren't as glaring when he's being guarded by less skilled and agile players. He could technically fill in at small forward over the next few weeks, but it doesn't make a ton of sense to convert a decent undersized power forward into a bad small forward.
A poor ball handler and shot creator, Ariza is nonetheless a very underrated passer, something that can't be said about any of the team's other small forwards. As of this writing, Ariza's assist ratio is second only to Nene among the team's non-guards, and without a particularly notable cost in turnovers. This ability to make the extra pass, frequently from the wing to someone cutting toward the basket, is very valuable, especially to the team's big men, many of which are almost entirely reliant on teammates to set them up for high percentage shots. As a result, the players replacing Ariza should be about the same, while the efficiency of the players around them could fall off a little bit.
Losing Ariza for a few weeks will likely hurt the Wizards. Fortunately for the team, though, it shouldn't hurt too much. Despite his struggles, he's still the probably the team's best option as a starting small forward, especially with John Wall still out of action. However, his replacements are more than capable of filling in for him, to the extent that it's very possible that fans don't even notice he's gone.