By Patrick Hruby and Michael Pina
Editor's note: Over the weekend, future NBA Hall of Famer Paul Pierce became a
Los Angeles Clipper Washington Wizard. Read that again. To better understand what may be the second-most surprising offseason move by an Eastern Conference small forward, we asked a long-suffering Wizards fan and Washington, D.C. resident (our own Patrick Hruby) and a neutral league observer (Sports on Earth NBA contributor Michael Pina) to discuss:
Patrick Hruby: Like most right-thinking Americans, I was sitting in bed on Saturday night reading the NBA message boards at Real GM -- you know, where the Jason Kidd-is-leaving-Brooklyn news first broke -- when a new thread appeared. Paul Pierce to the Wizards. And like most right-thinking Americans sitting in bed on a Saturday night browsing NBA message boards, my reaction was succinct.
Followed by: huh?
With the exception of the Michael Jordan comeback that we collectively pretend didn't happen, big-name NBA players never choose to come to Washington. Never ever. Not voluntarily, at least. Heck, even decent players only bother when they're wacky enough to tell the world that they let a coin flip decide where they were going, and the other choice just happens to be the pre-Chris Paul Los Angeles Clippers.
So yes: I'm surprised that Pierce will be joining John Wall, Bradley Beal and Kevin Seraphin's pet snake in the nation's capital. I'm scared as well, both for Pierce's Achilles tendons and assorted additional joints and ligaments. Remember, I'm first and foremost: 1) a deservedly pessimistic Wizards fan; 2) someone who remembers how Jordan's comeback reportedly started with Ron Artest breaking his ribs in a pickup game, which led to Jordan overtraining in an effort to make up for lost body preparation time, which in turn resulted in Jordan acquiring Brandon Roy's knees.
All of that said, I'm also cautiously optimistic.
By NBA standards, Pierce is old. Thirty-six, to be exact. As in: one year younger than me. And I'm sure as hell not trying to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes. (Point of fact: just twenty minutes of shooting around and a couple of sets of squats are enough to leave me begging for traction). Now, Pierce always has excelled with something of an old man's game, even when he was a younger player. When I think of him dominating, speed and explosiveness don't come to mind. Instead, I picture shoulder fakes, herky-jerk dribbles, clever angles and a skinny 8th grader's three-point push shot that surprisingly clears the front of the rim and somehow never gets blocked. As such, I'm hopeful that Pierce can still make an impact, keep truckin' along as the Tim Duncan -- or maybe Andre Miller -- of NBA small forwards. On the other hand, players in their mid-30s tend to decline rapidly, and perimeter players generally fall off a performance cliff. (See Richmond, Mitch, the Washington years).
Michael, you saw more of Pierce last season than I did. So tell me this: What kind of player is he at this point, and how much gas is left in his tank?
Michael Pina: Paul Pierce is an old guy, as you said. But unlike other aging former superstars, he's managed to adapt his game. He can still rebound, is basically never out of position on defense (he's an excellent communicator who lets others know where they're supposed to be) and is always a threat to drain a three-pointer, whether it be trailing in transition or pulling up off the dribble.
His game never really relied on athleticism, and it shows. Last year, Pierce wasn't asked to create his own shot in the mid-range, though he was definitely capable of pulling off a nice step back jumper in crunch time. His surprising effectiveness as a 36-year-old stretch four is basically the stuff of legend, and Washington coach Randy Wittman shouldn't hesitate to use him in a similar way next year -- even before Nene Hilario suffers his annual injury that sidelines him for 4-6 weeks.
Contract aside, Pierce is arguably a flat-out upgrade over Trevor Ariza at small forward. He doesn't have the potential to guard the other team's best player, but as a facilitator in the half-court Pierce can unclog Washington's sometimes-brutal half-court offense. Especially if the other team is forced to defend him with its third-best defender. Pierce should continue on as an efficient fourth (or even fifth) offensive option next season. Guarding Washington's starting five was tough last year, but it just got more difficult.
Patrick Hruby: Excellent. I like what I hear. Too often last season, the Wizards' offense stagnated in late-game and pressure situations -- in part because the team didn't have a threatening ball handler or shot creator outside of Beal or Wall; in part because Wittman's seemed designed to accentuate this fact instead of scheming around it; in part because both guards often seemed exhausted and dead-legged by the end of tight contests. (Never more so than in a home playoff elimination loss to Indiana, when a furious fourth quarter comeback fizzed amid a series of Beal misses and Wall miscues). The dearly departed Ariza was adept at knocking down open three-pointers, but his inability to create off the bounce via rare-and-stunningly awkward dribble drives (imagine a long-limbed Labrador puppy dribbling a basketball) left Washington with limited half court options.
In theory, then, a healthy Pierce provides a significant upgrade. I love that he was tied for No. 3 in the league last year in "clutch-time three-pointers," as defined by ESPN's stats department, behind Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard. If Pierce can hit corner and transition threes like Ariza, create an occasional open look with a dribble drive or post-up and help the Wizards late in the shot clock, he'll make the team much more dangerous. Oh, and that goes double for Pierce potentially playing as a stretch four in a small ball lineup next to Martell Webster (get well soon, Web!) or redshirt freshman Otto Porter.
Yes, I'm positive the Wizards will be a more enjoyable team to use in NBA 2K15 -- but on the other hand, I'm not convinced Pierce will have the same impact in real life.
After all, Wittman was reluctant to play small ball last season, instead preferring a center-power forward rotation of Marcin Gortat, Nene, Trevor Booker and Drew Gooden, none of whom are exactly Dirk Nowitzki from outside the paint. That may be due to available talent: Webster and Porter were injured, ineffective or both for much of the year. But it also may be due to Wittman's emphasis on stout, traditional defense, with back line big men protecting the rim and preventing offensive rebounds. Over at Bullets Forever, writer Umair Kahn wonders if the coach can make the most out of Pierce's abilities; I wonder the same thing. I also wonder how much the Wizards' top-10 efficiency defense will suffer without Ariza, given his one-on-one proficiency, knack for passing lane deflections and Scottie Pippen-like (lite?) role of taking on opposing top scorers regardless of size, from LeBron James to Paul George to D.J. Augustin. (Go back and watch the video: Augustin killed Washington in the playoffs until Ariza switched on to him). Team defense and excellent communication only go so far, and if Pierce is yelling just the right instructions as James beats him off the dribble and dunks in Gortat's face, well, that's still two points for the other guys.
Anyway, these are strategic, on-court questions that will be answered in time. We're still in the offseason. So here's a more pressing question: How did Pierce end up with the Wizards in the first place? It doesn't just seem unexpected. It seems downright random, like when the CPU trades Kobe Bryant for Rodney Stuckey in the aforementioned NBA 2K. Rumor had Pierce joining former coach Doc Rivers with the Clippers, unless he remained with Brooklyn. Did anyone -- unnamed league sources, Real GM message boarders, Billy King, Kevin Garnett, the Great and Powerful Woj -- see this move coming? And while we're at it, what the heck is going on with the Nets, anyway? Are the Wizards really a more appealing free agent destination at this point?
Michael Pina: The news broke when I was sitting courtside for a Utah Jazz vs. Philadelphia 76ers Summer League game, and all the writers sitting around me were stunned. I was too. But things began to make sense after the dust settled. Trevor Ariza had just spurned Washington for the Houston Rockets because, reportedly, he didn't want to pay any state income tax. The buzz around Las Vegas was that the Wizards were fine elevating Otto Porter into a much larger role he probably couldn't handle (despite an impressive 25-point performance in Washington's first Summer League game).
Pierce was reportedly asking for around $9 million on the open market, but that figure was more directed towards the Brooklyn Nets than the rest of the league. Nobody was paying Pierce the same amount of money the Memphis Grizzlies just gave Zach Randolph, or the Dallas Mavericks just gave Nowitzki. If he wanted to play for a good basketball team, Pierce would have to settle for the mid-level exception, which Washington still had access to. It shouldn't have taken everyone by surprise, but it did.
It didn't make sense for Brooklyn to continue down the path of ludicrous spending. Their owner wants to cut salary, and letting Pierce walk made sense. The Los Angeles Clippers were a suitor everyone loved to talk about (strictly because of Pierce's relationship with Doc Rivers), but they already used their mid-level exception on Spencer Hawes and their bi-annual exception on Jordan Farmar. The Clippers are already way over the cap and could only acquire Pierce in a sign-and-trade, but they're thin in the assets department. That route was never likely.
I wrote about a few other possible destinations last week, but the Chandler Parsons offer sheet -- and ripple effects from it -- muddled things up a bit. Pierce is right to choose Washington if he seeks an outside shot at title contention. The East is wide open now that LeBron moved onto Cleveland. Wall will be better next year, as will Beal. Chicago is a better team than the one Washington dispatched in the first-round last season, but their failure to land Carmelo hurts. Miami took an obvious step back (though the additions of Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts give them promise on the defensive end). The Charlotte Hornets are still several moves (and years) away. The Pacers appear to be bringing the band back, but that still might not be enough, even if Lance Stephenson stays.
The best part of this, for Washington, is they'll be better next season without damaging their long-term window. Pierce's deal is for two years, with the second being a player option. Hats off to Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld for leaving the door open for a Kevin Durant max contract in 2016.
Patrick Hruby: A lot to digest there, both from a Wizards and overall league perspective. Let's start with Washington: you mentioned Porter, the former Big East Player of the Year who: 1) was the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft; 2) had an injury-riddled, historically feeble rookie season by the standards of No. 3 selections, one that likely would have garnered more national notice if not for the Wizards' surprising playoff push and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett's Kwame Brown-esque year.
(Speaking of Bennett -- how does he look in Summer League? Healthy? Fit? Does his game now contain, you know, basketball-like substance? Prior to the draft, rumor had it that Washington's internal scouting debates centered around Porter vs. Bennett, which at least for now is mildly alarming).
Porter's Summer League coming-out party on Saturday pleasantly surprised me. He resembled a player who can contribute to a playoff team, and perhaps even grow -- someday -- into a nice hybrid of Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton and ... wait for it ... Ariza. But not yet. Having to force-feed Porter 30-plus minutes a night would have been a major downgrade for Washington, and for that reason alone, adding Pierce makes sense. Also, I'd like to believe that Pierce can tutor Porter a bit, teach him the subtle tricks of the NBA small forward trade -- like Porter, Pierce has always been a better basketball player than athlete -- and help him develop into a long-term replacement. Barring that, I'd like Pierce to not treat Porter the way Brett Favre treated Aaron Rodgers. I don't expect Pierce to moonlight as a summer league coach a la Al Harrington, but is he the mentoring type? Will he demand major minutes? What's his reputation in league circles when it comes to being a good, generous teammate?
Moreover: If there is one part of Pierce's game Porter should try to emulate, what is it?
As for the bigger picture, I'm still a bit stunned. I get that Hawes might help the Clippers more than Pierce would, even though that sentence feels awfully strange to type. And I get that Houston and Ariza are potentially a very good match -- James Harden should get Ariza a lot of open shots, and with or without Chandler Parsons, Ariza should see plenty of playing time on a team that loves to spread the floor and needs a versatile wing stopper. What I don't quite understand is the Nets not wanting to keep Pierce around. Brooklyn already has mortgaged its future and spent millions in luxury tax payments, why not bring back a future Hall of Famer and make the present a little more enjoyable for fans paying premium prices?
You say the Wizards have an outside shot at title contention. If by "outside" you mean "Antarctica," I agree. The team is immeasurably improved from the JaVale McGee-Nick Young-Andray Blatche era -- but that's a low bar to clear, given that those squads had the collective basketball IQ of Phil Jackson's doorstop. And being a playoff team is not the same as being a title threat. I'm not sure how much Washington can improve over the next two seasons, given the amount of money they've spent (likely at or over the cap by the start of the season) and assets they've squandered (botching first round draft picks; selling second rounders; Jan Freakin' Vesely) to become merely decent. Grunfeld takes a lot of abuse among local fans, and while he's surprisingly adept at raiding the league's recycling bin (Drew Gooden was an inspired late-season signing), his record speaks for itself. Is he really the right person to steer Washington through the perpetual offseason churn of the new, shorter-contracts NBA collective bargaining agreement and make the Wizards an attractive destination in 2016, when Pierce and Nene are off the books and the franchise could have room to lure Durant?
Last question, and the one that matters most: On a scale of I'm Coming Home Crazy that goes from Matt Bonner returning to San Antonio to James returning the Cleveland, where would Durant-to-his-hometown-D.C.-area rank? What kind of chance does Washington have at landing him?
Michael Pina: Before diving into Pierce/Wizards responses, lets briefly go off track to talk about Anthony Bennett's Summer League thus far: He's a man amongst boys out here. He's chiseled, having fun, running the floor, ripping rebounds off the glass, playing defense and finally looking like a number one pick is supposed to. (All that commentary must be taken with a grain of salt, since we're talking about Summer League, but still. With James and Andrew Wiggins on his team, he'll be better next year.)
Now back to why we're here:
• Since the Celtics won the title in 2008, Pierce has been one of the most respected players in the league. He works hard, breathes the game and truly prioritizes winning over everything else. He was willing to come off the bench last season. He's a pro. If Porter earns a spot in the rotation, all the better, but Pierce won't pout or whine if the second-year forward makes an unlikely jump next season. Again: Pierce will be 37 years old; he can't log 30-plus minutes if he wanted to. Having him serve as a mentor is sort of an unquantifiable bonus, and at the bare minimum Porter will look at how hard Pierce works and emulate all the off-court work that's needed to be a great NBA player.
• Brooklyn was willing to pay the luxury tax when they were trying to win a title, but that doesn't appear possible anymore. Bringing Pierce back would be super costly. (Like, an extra $20 million.) They're starting to operate like a normal organization, which is less depressing.
• Can Washington win the title? Saying yes would make me look crazy. But they're in the East, and if a few things break their way they can make the Conference finals. Who knows how much better Beal and Wall will be? Or whether Porter can provide quality production in their rotation?
• Regarding the future: Washington has flexibility, especially when you consider the projected salary cap bump to $80 million in 2016. Nene's contract expires then, and it's tradable if they need to move it. This team is on a path to incrementally improve from within, while building around the margins. The foundation is set. And from a team-building perspective things aren't too different from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Washington isn't as talented, but they successfully used the draft to find their core. I'm not a Grunfeld fan by any means, but the Pierce signing is significant. This team will be attractive in two years, with Beal and Wall hopefully All-Star Weekend regulars by then. If they keep the cap sheet clean enough to offer Durant a max contract, there's honestly no reason to assume his interest heading East won't be piqued.
Patrick Hruby: You had me at piqued. Durant in '16 gets my vote.