The word that most aptly describes the Washington Wizards as they gear up for their second playoffs in a row is “uninspiring.” A team that was supposed to be on the rise looks like a sitting duck, waiting for either the Raptors or Bulls to put them out of their misery in the first round, especially after a terrible game against the Pacers on Tuesday.
Every doubt that hovered over them to start the season has proven to the true. They do lack depth at the wing and don’t take enough three-pointers and yes, their spacing is a disaster at times. The questionable personnel decisions made in the offseason have, in fact, doomed the Wizards to mediocrity.
Yet one of those moves could still be the one that turns things around in the playoffs for Washington: the signing of Paul Pierce.
When Trevor Ariza entered free agency after a career year, he became one of the most potentially dangerous players on the market. It was impossible to know if he had reached consistency as a shooter or was feasting on the open corner threes John Wall was creating for him. It wasn’t surprising, then, when the Wizards decided to sign Pierce to a contract for much less money than what Ariza got from the Rockets. That the two-year deal the Celtics legend agreed to left the door open for a potential homecoming for Kevin Durant in 2016 was just a bonus.
Pierce was supposed to provide comparable shooting to Ariza while also adding some shot creation. Things haven’t exactly gone as planned. Pierce is shooting a very good 39 percent from outside and 42 percent from the corners, but he takes half as many shots from there as Ariza did. If he were providing great secondary playmaking to make up for it or playing great defense, the tradeoff would have been worth it, but that’s not the case. The difference in assist percentage between Pierce in 2015 and Ariza in 2014 is negligible and defensively Pierce represents a slight downgrade.
That’s not to say that Pierce is the Wizards’ biggest problem. Far from it. All in all, he has been good. The fact that he can play fewer minutes per game than Ariza, however, exposes the complete lack of decent bench options at the wing. Had Martell Webster regained his pre-injury form, letting Ariza go would look genius in retrospect. Alas, that didn’t happen and as a result the Wizards get outscored whenever Pierce rests.
Randy Wittman won’t let Pierce slide over to power forward, which was one of the biggest reasons his signing made sense for the Wizards. Washington employs two traditional big men with limited range, which makes the need for a third big with a three-point shot a necessity. Pierce could have filled that role beautifully, spacing the floor for Wall pick-and-rolls with one of Nene and Marcin Gortat as a small ball power forward, just like he did with the Nets. Unfortunately, that’s not on the outdated playbook Wittman uses.
For all those reasons, it’s clear Pierce in Washington hasn’t worked out. Yet the true answer to whether the Wizards made the right decision or not when they signed him will only be apparent in the postseason. Pierce is a proven playoff performer who has come up big for every team he has been a part of. Last season in the first round against the Raptors, he helped the Nets pull off an upset by playing more minutes and keeping up his production. Pierce even had a game-winning block and famously said “that’s why they got me here.”
Intangibles are often overrated, but having a guy who’s not afraid to take the last shot will take pressure off Wall. If his recent statements are any indication, Pierce is also pushing the young stars on the team to step up:
“I keep telling Wall and Beal, ‘You’ve got to make up your mind. Do you want to be good, or do you want to be great?” Pierce told ESPN’s Jackie McMullan. “Because if you want to be great, you gotta do it every single night, not just when you feel like it. Both of those guys have the potential to be great. I love them. But sometimes I’m not sure they realize what it takes.”
Pierce calling out Beal and Wall (and Otto Porter, later in the interview) right before the playoffs start isn’t a coincidence. He’s doing what veterans are supposed to do: trying to get the best out of his teammates, just like he did in Brooklyn. If the past is any indication, we know he’ll step up. All that’s left to figure out is whether he’ll inspire his teammates and be able to overcome the limitations his coach imposes on him or instead wither along with the Wizards’ chances of taking a step forward in the development of a potential championship core.
Pierce’s season is Washington has been underwhelming, a sad note on an otherwise fantastic run. Both him and the team will have a chance to turn that perception around soon enough, as the playoffs kick off. His legacy isn’t at stake, but if he leads this inconsistent group and underwhelming coach to the second round, “The Truth” will add another triumphant chapter to a illustrious career. If he doesn’t, his decision to join the Wizards will be questioned, as it would have robbed him of the chance to help a contender elsewhere. The stakes are high, just like Pierce likes it.