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Of Lakers' last championship era, Trevor Ariza is the standout this season

SportsNBAColumnPro BasketballBasketballLos Angeles LakersWashington Wizards

A where-are-they-now rundown of top players from the Lakers' last championship era makes one feel for the purple and gulp.

Kobe Bryant is busy rehabbing a bothersome left knee whenever he's not busy ripping the direction of his franchise.

Andrew Bynum played in two games for the Indiana Pacers before being been sidelined by another knee issue that could end his season, if not his career. (He did manage to get his hair cut at halftime of a game against Chicago, though.)

Pau Gasol plays for the Lakers.

Lamar Odom got arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence before signing a contract to play in Spain and injuring his back.

Derek Fisher continues to slowly fossilize in Oklahoma City.

Metta World Peace was waived by the New York Knicks, allowing him to dedicate himself full time to Twitter.

That leaves Trevor Ariza with the distinction of having the best season of the lot in terms of his production and his team's fortunes.

OK, so it didn't take much, but Ariza is enjoying what might be the finest season of his career. It also helps that his Washington Wizards (36-33) appear headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

"It's not a given, yet," Ariza said Friday before the Wizards' 117-107 victory over the Lakers. "We haven't clinched anything, so we're still working toward that, but the process in doing it so far has been really fun. You get to grind every day with these dudes, you get to see young players get better and better every day and even as veteran players, you get to work on your game and get better too."

Though he's still only 28, Ariza qualifies as one of the old-timers in a starting lineup that also includes Bradley Beal (20), John Wall (23) and Trevor Booker (27). Wall and Beal have formed one of the most dynamic young backcourts in the league, often freeing their teammates for open shots with their playmaking and ability to draw attention from defenses.

Ariza is averaging a career-high-tying 14.9 points per game while making 42.2% of his three-pointers, which obliterates his previous best mark of 36.4% from last season. He's also averaging a career-best 6.4 rebounds.

Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni had a theory about why the former Westchester High and UCLA star who turned pro when he was 18 seems to be coming of age in his 10th NBA season.

"When you get guys around you pushing the ball, opening up things and shooting the ball well from the three," D'Antoni said of Ariza, "then you get into a nice groove and he's in that groove."

Wizards Coach Randy Wittman ascribed Ariza's success to a throwback work ethic, noting he shows up before practices, shoot-arounds and games to take extra shots and work on other areas of his game.

Ariza offered another explanation.

"Just playing freely, really," he said. "They're really just going in more and I'm more confident shooting them. I think confidence is the biggest thing."

The last Lakers fans saw of Ariza as one of their own, he was making a pair of game-turning steals against Denver in the 2009 Western Conference finals before going on to score 15 points in the Finals-clinching Game 5 victory over Orlando. He often outshot the Magic's sharpshooters in the series and made 49.7% of his three-pointers in the playoffs that year.

He paraded down Figueroa with his teammates and then he was gone, spurning the Lakers' offer to return by signing a five-year, $33-million contract with Houston. He spent one season with the Rockets and two with the New Orleans Hornets before being traded to the Wizards in the summer of 2012.

Things have worked out for Ariza this season but not so much for his former Lakers teammates. Ariza has noticed from afar.

"With Kobe, it's just been injuries," Ariza said. "Same with Andrew. Pau, whatever his struggles are, I'm sure he knows how to get through it and understands what he needs to do."

Ariza said his old pals know he's there for them even if they don't communicate regularly.

"We don't have to talk every day to know that it's all love or we're all cool or whatever," he said. "It's kind of one of those things where you could be gone for a while but it's just like it was when you see each other. Throughout the season, I focus on what we're doing here. In the summertime, I can worry about all that."

His onetime teammates have given him plenty to fret about.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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