The Phoenix Suns began their pursuit of Trevor Ariza at 12:01 Eastern time with a FaceTime call to Ariza on his way back from a wedding. However, they long coveted Ariza before July 1 rolled around.
During the interview process with new head coach Igor Kokoskov, General Manager Ryan McDonough said on Friday that Kokoskov mentioned Ariza was the first name he brought up for possible free agents targets. Not only Kokoskov, but James Jones just recently finished up his NBA career in 2016, admiring Ariza’s team-first mentality from a competitive distance.
“We thought back to our first meeting, first interview actually with Igor Kokoskov,” McDonough said. “Champ (James Jones) and I were in Houston actually in the middle of the Rockets-Jazz playoffs series. I think they were between games 1 and 2, and James and I flew down to Houston to meet with Igor. Over the course of a two to three hour interview, we talked about a number of topics. One of them was our desire to be aggressive in free agency and we said ‘look at our roster, who do you think the best it would be?’ And I swear the first words out of his mouth were Trevor Ariza.”
Phoenix was in desperate need of an established veteran who could provide plus shooting and defensive versatility into their system, which is the backbone of their team identity. Not only that, but McDonough and Co. seemed to value Ariza’s winning pedigree and the attitude he instills on every team he’s been a part of thus far.
Ariza has won a championship with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles but was also most recently apart of the Rockets squad that pushed Golden State to the absolute brink. Even names like Dwight Howard and Stephon Marbury have suited up next to Ariza over his 14-year career. The Suns’ front office is hoping Ariza’s competitiveness rubs off on the entire team moving forward.
Names like Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges and T.J. Warren will have to go 1-on-1 against Ariza each day in practice, helping sharpen their tools for long term success. They hope to mold those same characteristics Ariza carries into their three other wings.
“Well, it speaks to the way our roster is constructed,” Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones said. “We talk about Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren. Those three guys in particular, Devin Booker as well, but those guys in particular will have to compete with this guy every single day. And it’s not a given, and he’s not going to give an inch. If anything, he’s going to force them to take it. So, for us, that’s the most critical piece of the development of a winner. Winners win, and in order to win you have to compete. You have to earn it. You have to expect that you have to earn it.”
How does Ariza see himself after his long journey around the NBA? Through and through, he’s a pure winner who’s going to demand everything out of his teammates to reach his level early and often. That’s the exact type of player that’s needed in Phoenix to help establish an entirely new culture.
“I look at myself as a competitor and a winner. I do everything I can to try to make our team better everywhere I’ve been,” Ariza said. “I know that coming here is going to be a challenge of trying to improve and get better but I’m up for the challenge.”
It was mentioned earlier this week on The Jump by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that Golden State was intrigued by Ariza, wanting to offer him the $5.4 million mini mid-level exception they had available. However, Phoenix could offer nearly $10 million more for that one year and they did exactly that.
Somehow, Phoenix’s aggressive pursuit right out of the gate for Ariza led them down the road to acquire DeMarcus Cousins with that roster slot replacing JaVale McGee.
Acquiring Ariza wasn’t about pushing to that stratosphere of play, but helping lay the foundational pieces of winning basketball into place one of the league’s youngest rosters.
That fast admiration for Ariza’s skills over his career immediately attracted him to quickly signing the dotted line.
“Well, for me, Phoenix was the most aggressive team and the team that showed the most interest in me. And as human beings, we all want to feel appreciated and wanted,” Ariza said. “When a team just shows that much appreciation for what you do, naturally you just attract to something like that.”
Ariza preached similar to what McDonough has said in the past. A tad more veterans with win-now mentalities will only help push this core further to proverbially flipping the switch sooner rather than later.
For McDonough’s sake, with his contract expiring at the end of the 2019-20 season, Ariza’s arrival will push them towards making a serious push towards the playoffs next season.
Another thing that pushed Ariza towards becoming the newest Phoenix Sun was embracing a new challenge helping Devin Booker make the superstar leap. Watching Booker grow into that role over his second contract worth five years for $158 million, Ariza’s presence will do wonders on and off the court.
Not only will Ariza’s floor spacing ability create ample amounts of room for Booker to break down defenders in 1-on-1 situations, but also give him someone who’s been in the trenches of many playoff battles already. Ariza immediately will become an asset for Booker right from the beginning.
“I think it’s another exciting challenge for me. I get to see another extremely talented player grow,” Ariza said. “If he needs anything from me or just somebody to talk to about different situations I’ve been around. Those types of players and the shoes that he’s walking in or the places he’s going to go I’ve seen. So, any type of advice I can lend him, I’m always available for that.”
Even if it seems unrealistic to some, McDonough continued to speak on their playoff admirations next year trying to pull off one of the bigger turnarounds in NBA history. Making it in one of the eight spots in the wild, wild Western Conference is the No. 1 goal for them now and moving forward throughout this era of Suns basketball.
What’s also interesting is after McDonough mentioned that, he left open the door for trade opportunities later this offseason. He sure spoke like that someone who had more up his sleeve in terms of wheeling and dealing once the market wears down.
“At a different level, our goal is to be the most improved team in the league,” McDonough said. “And whatever that means, obviously we won 21 games last year, but this is a new year and we have a lot of new faces on the roster starting with Trevor but not ending with Trevor. We will continue to be aggressive as we look to upgrade our roster.”
Ariza was their top free agent priority long before it was officially announced, and it’s surprisingly the biggest free agent signing thus far after they completely turned their roster over to player development three years ago. However, expect Ariza not to be the last one in that department.
With the addition of Ariza, he’s now added in alongside Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler and Troy Daniels as expiring contracts. They are clearing the decks to add either a max free agent or multiple veterans like Ariza onto this roster once more a year from now.
The Suns are betting on that switch being flipped soon led by Booker, Ayton and Jackson but these pieces like Ariza are critical to turning them into long term winners.
How Phoenix is playing their cards at the moment, they are setting themselves up to be a contender in the West after Golden State, Houston and Los Angeles age and their young core is rising all into their primes. Over the next 5-10 years, this should be one of the most successful times in recent memory for this franchise.
Ariza’s signing was the next step in this long term plan to help turn the Suns from the bottom to the top in quick succession. His addition will be huge to help their players learn the ins and outs of how to play the right way, making winning plays consistently.
“In order to be a great team, you have to be selfless,” Ariza said. “You gotta be a dog out there every night.”