In August 2010, when the Hornets traded for Trevor Ariza and became his fifth team in seven NBA seasons, Mike Malone, then a New Orleans assistant, called Ariza to say how excited he was to reconnect. Malone was a Knicks assistant when the team drafted Ariza in 2004, a relationship that ended 18 months later after New York's coach, Larry Brown, labeled Ariza "delusional."
Malone had spent much of the summer before Ariza's rookie season inside the gym at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, where Ariza was a local legend, teaching a raw and gangly teenager the basics of NBA basketball: defensive slides, ballhandling drills, holding his follow-through. But Ariza wasn't interested in nostalgia during this phone call. He was sullen.
"Coach, how come I keep getting traded?" Ariza asked. "What am I doing wrong?"
Ariza was in the middle of a period of self-discovery that would define the rest of his career. He won a ring with the Lakers in 2009, emerging as a reliable 3-and-D player in Phil Jackson's triangle offense -- a pass-and-cut system that meshed with Ariza's basic beliefs about how the game should be played, and one that is (ironically) very different from Houston's current isolation-heavy style. Ariza is a purist subsuming any hopes of Warriors-level ball movement for the greater good.
"I guess you could say that," Ariza tells ESPN.com of the purist label, "but I look at myself as a player that can adjust to everything -- a chameleon. Every system isn't for every player, so it's about how you adjust. I think that's the hard, and the fun, part."
Ariza arrived in L.A. having made eight 3-pointers combined over three-plus seasons; his first NBA coaches didn't even want him trying. He would have to evolve, and luckily for everyone, Ariza was the rare Laker who matched Kobe Bryant's addiction to work.
"We were inseparable," Bryant tells ESPN.com. "If you saw Trevor, you saw me. He didn't need me to show him how to work. He had it already -- that ambition."
Ariza famously snared multiple clutch steals in the Lakers' closer-than-you-remember conference finals win over the Nuggets, and shot 48 percent from deep overall in that 2009 title run. The Lakers promptly let him go in favor of Ron Artest; Houston, Artest's old team, signed Ariza to a fat five-year, $34 million contract.
That exchange, and that contract, threw Ariza's career into disarray. He tried to live up to the money and step out from Bryant's shadow, jacking off-the-bounce jumpers and missing most of them for both Houston and the post-Chris Paul Hornets. New Orleans salary-dumped him onto Washington, where he re-realized his destiny as a defensive stopper who drained more catch-and-shoot corner 3s -- courtesy of John Wall -- than almost anyone in the league.
"I remember telling him, 'Trevor, you don't have to create anything anymore,'" says Randy Wittman, then the Wizards coach. The Rockets watched from afar, and James Harden told the team's front office he wanted Ariza in free agency in 2014. "I am still upset we let him get away," Wittman says.
A half-decade later, Ariza has mastered a role he was never sure he wanted, the always overlooked cog in Houston's scoring-and-switching machine. Almost everyone on the Rockets has gotten more publicity: Mike D'Antoni for reinventing his offense; Jeff Bzdelik, D'Antoni's lead assistant, for crafting Houston's defense; the superstars; the rising center; Gerald Green, rescued from NBA purgatory; the new-guy stoppers -- P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, the latter drawing attention first as a free-agency steal, now as the victim of an ill-timed injury that has stolen his ability to make layups.
Ariza? He just logs 40-ish minutes, hits enough 3s that you never fret about spacing, and defends across every position. He rarely misses games or practices. When the Wizards tried to rest him at the end of the 2013-14 season, with their playoff seed almost set, Ariza refused, Wittman says. He wants in on every practice drill.
"I had the luxury of coaching [Kevin Garnett], and KG would cuss me out if I wanted him to sit out one play in practice," says Wittman, who spent 13 seasons on Minnesota's staff. "Trevor wasn't quite like that, but he would let you know he didn't want to sit."
"He is the forgotten man," Malone says.
Watch him defend three Warriors in a span of three seconds, and finally smother a potential Stephen Curry triple:
Give Ariza's minutes to a wing 15 percent worse as either a shooter or defender, and a lot of Houston's system -- the switching on defense, the offense with shooters planted around Harden and Paul -- collapses.
"There is no way we can do what we do without him," says Irv Roland, a Rockets assistant.
Ariza is an important, mature, calming presence in every locker room. No one panicked after the Warriors obliterated Houston in Game 3. Ariza was part of a group that went out to a big dinner in the Bay, after which some of them -- not Ariza -- retired to Harden's hotel room to play cards and talk ball for a bit. (D'Antoni has a saying to remind the Rockets not to dwell on whatever happened -- good or bad -- in the previous game: "So what? What's next?")
Ariza is usually the first player to arrive at home games. He warms up early, and sits at his locker, watching film of Houston's opponent playing on a big screen.
As players file in, Ariza might stop them to discuss a play rushing across the screen: How should we defend that? "He holds court," Bzdelik says. "When you have a player-directed culture like that, your team has a chance. Trevor brings that."
He always has -- especially in Washington, amid a sometimes factional locker room with a clear age division. During a preseason practice in Brazil in 2013, Nene, a strong and persnickety sort, deviated from Washington's pick-and-roll defense. Someone called him out. Nene objected. It was one of those moments, Wittman and other Washington sources recall, that could wobble a team's culture. "Why do I need to do it this way?" Nene asked, according to Wittman.
Ariza had had enough. "Just f---ing do it," Ariza barked, getting almost nose-to-nose with Nene, Wittman recalls. (Ariza and Nene, together again in Houston, both demurred when ESPN asked them about the incident this week. That's not surprising; Ariza still hasn't acknowledged a pivotal players-only meeting he reportedly called early in the 2013-14 season.)
"There were not a lot of people who would mess with Nene," Wittman says. "He could hurt you. And here comes Trevor, 175 pounds soaking wet. That was such an eye-opener."
Ariza is an old basketball soul, people close to him say. He has a vision of how team dynamics should work, and that vision includes doing what you are asked in practice. Washington went on to win 44 games, and dismantled Chicago in the first round before bowing out against Indiana. It would be silly to suggest that dispute -- and Ariza's resolution of it -- led to Washington's success. But everyone remembers it as a touchstone in settling the locker room. "It was a big moment for us," Wittman says.
Ariza doesn't speak up much in front of the full group. He prefers to lead by example. In Washington, he requested that the Wizards have a gym reserved anytime they landed in a new city, so he could get shots up right away. Bradley Beal eventually started joining him. "He never said, 'You are doing this with me,'" Wittman remembers. "He just did it. And maybe Brad saw it and said, 'Oh, s---, this guy's doing this when we land at 8 p.m.? I might start doing that.' To have a guy like that on your team -- it's invaluable."
When Ariza does speak up, his words carry weight. He is careful with timing and tone, and has a good ear for how to bring a team back to a good place. After one Washington loss, Wittman entered the locker room furious at their inability -- mostly Wall's -- to run a Spurs-style motion play the team called "Thru." He chastised them. Ariza raised his hand, team sources remember. He suggested that perhaps Wittman was overreacting -- that the team's poor defense, and not Wall's execution of one pet play, had cost them the game.
Wittman calmed down, and told the team Ariza was right. "He has a way of seeing the big picture, even after a loss," Wittman says. "He was the only guy I never had to worry about -- zero maintenance." (This is a common refrain among Ariza's current and former coaches.)
There is an injustice in our obsessions with superstars -- even if that obsession is understandable. Superstars drive outcomes. It is interesting and meaningful to discuss what the outcome of these series, and this season, will mean for the legacies of Paul, Harden, Curry, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James. But we miss a big part of the league ignoring guys like Ariza. On a day-to-day basis, they make the NBA go 'round almost as much as superstars. They make the fabric of a team.
Ariza is the only Rockets player with a championship ring, and everyone with the team says his fearlessness helps set a tone. Houston's coaches are still talking about Ariza scoring 11 points over the first three minutes of Game 4 in the first round against Minnesota -- when a Wolves win would have tied the series, and set off heated coverage of whether Paul and Harden were ready for postseason pressure. Ariza staked them.
"Trevor is tough," Bryant says. "There is no punk in Trevor at all. You're not going to bully him, and you're not going to intimidate him."
He can even make plays when defenses force the ball to Houston's role players. When the Warriors double-team Harden instead of switching Curry onto him, Ariza has done enough to punish them:
The ball never sticks with Ariza. He touches smart passes around the perimeter. When he spots a defender sprinting to close out on him, Ariza blows by him and makes the next pass:
Ariza dished six assists in Houston's Game 2 win. Paul and Harden will always dominate the rock, but the Rockets reach a different level when their role players participate a little more. That is closer to Ariza's vision of ideal basketball.
There is great irony in Ariza thriving for this Houston team. The Rockets do not fit anyone's vision of egalitarian basketball. Ariza long ago accepted that. When Houston veers too far toward isolation -- when entire quarters go by without role players doing much beyond standing around on offense -- he might express some mild discontent to the relevant parties, team sources say.
"He's used to having a purpose on the floor," Bryant says. "I can see why standing around might be tough for him."
He finds soft defenders, or those who play no defense at all, almost offensive. (He had a particular distaste for Kevin Martin's game, Houston sources recall.) He has had to get past that in acceptance of several classic Moreyball chuckers.
Ariza even had to get used to the idea of switching, Bzdelik and others say. For a lot of graybeard veterans, switching still represents surrender -- an alternative to effort. Bzedlik explained to Ariza how Houston would use switching as a weapon, and how his natural skills -- physicality, ball denial -- dovetailed with that. "His old-school approach actually translates well into switching," Bzdelik says. (Ariza is so good at jumping passing lanes, Wittman allowed him an entirely different set of rules from the rest of the Wizards on defense.)
That is Ariza -- a blend of old school and new school that has been a perfect fit for the Rockets, and will be again next season wherever he signs in free agency.
"I have so much respect for what Trevor has done," Malone says. "Those guys never get the limelight. But if you look at his career since those early days in New York, he's helped a lot of teams."
Ramona Shelburne contributed reporting to this story.