Field Study: A History of Paul Pierce at the 4 | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Field Study: A History of Paul Pierce at the 4

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Updated: April 24, 2015

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Not debatable: Hey, Paul Pierce at the 4 or “stretch 4”—against the Toronto Raptors—is working. (1)

Debatable: Why the Washington Wizards didn’t do this more when it was evident that they should, particularly when they were struggling. Also debatable: Whether Randy Wittman is full of possum shit.

Before we get into those debates, we need to look at the historical context of Pierce at the 4 (formerly known as “power forward”) for the Wizards.

According to 82games.com, Pierce played 4 percent of Washington’s available minutes at 4 spot this season (2) and 47 percent of the team’s minutes at 3 (or “small forward”).

Let’s get to 100 percent at the 4 position for the 2014-15 Wizards: Kris Humphries (42%), Nene (38%), Drew Gooden (12%), and DeJuan Blair (2%)—a slew of other Wizards wings were considered as playing 4 very briefly.

Distilling some NBA.com/stats lineup data, Pierce saw 155 minutes at the 4, meaning without at least two of the following on the court: Nene, Gortat, Humphries, Gooden, and Blair. That is also to say that if Pierce (6-foot-7) was on the court with John Wall, Nene, Rasual Butler (6-foot-7), and Otto Porter (6-foot-8), then Pierce is the 4.

So, just about 8.1 percent of Pierce’s 1,914 minutes (3) on the season were played at the 4. During those 155 minutes at 4 (Wall was on the court for 151 of them), the Wizards were plus-49 in plus/minus (+15.2 per 48 minutes).

For reference, Wall, Bradley Beal, Porter, Gooden, and Gortat (Washington’s fifth-most used lineup on the season), were plus-15.6 per 48 minutes over 80 in the regular season—a plus/minus rating that was tops amongst Washington’s 15 most-used five-man lineups. Stretch 4s!

“We’ve been asking all along to put him at the four a little bit. We’ve been talking about it. He came here to make big plays,” said John Wall, recently. And now, a pretty table showing all the lineups in which Pierce played the 4 during the regular season (tab 1) and the playoff season (tab 2)—talk about the theater of small sample sizes.

——

Whether it was completely by Ernie Grunfeld’s design or with Randy Wittman’s consultation, the Wizards were, at long last, deeeeep with big men heading into this season. A big part of this was that the Wizards were simply not going to count on a healthy Nene, so bets were hedged.

Related: Should Washington have invested more in a 3&D player aside (4) from what they had in Martell Webster and what they found—which then faded—in Rasual Butler? You could say “yes,” since shooting has long been an issue in Washington, but tough decisions are just that. Webster regressed hard, had too much money invested in him. Down a path chosen otherwise, we might find ourselves wondering why the Wizards don’t have someone like DeJuan Blair if Nene’s feet were keeping him out of the playoffs and Kris Humphries’ groin injury was just refusing to improve.

So Wittman played Russian roulette with the Webster-Porter-Butler triumvirate when times were tough in 2015 (after a surprising 22-9 start in 2014) and it didn’t work—trying to spark veterans while developing youth while rewarding those who have “earned” minutes is a delicate coaching balance that simply can’t be rationally addressed by some bleacher report… OH MY GOD OTTO PORTER WAS THE THIRD OVERALL PICK SO WHY DOESN’T HE PLAY ALL THE TIME AND EVERY TIME OVER THOSE BUMS?

For one, other Wizards players questioned whether Porter deserved time because he refused to be as aggressive as the team had hoped (earlier in the season). For two, lo and behold, Otto started progressing, whether it was because he earned more time, or got to see the game from the sidelines, or was taken under Paul Pierce’s wing—or a combination of it all. And guess what? He’s in the playoff rotation. We’ll never know if Otto playing more back then would’ve served him better now, or would have served the team better. He seems to be doing OK (especially when pairing with Pierce as the other ‘wing’ to this 4).

So Pierce didn’t play more at the 4, over 82 games. So Drew Gooden sometimes played 4 and came along toward the end of the season when Kris Humphries got hurt (5). So Wittman did actually spread out minutes. From a late-December TAI study in NBA minutes conservation:

Exactly 305 NBA players so far this season have appeared in at least 16 games and have averaged 10 or more minutes per appearance. Three teams have at least 12 players who qualify: the Spurs (12), known for conservation to the point of getting fined by the commissioner; the Wizards (12); and the Knicks (13).

On Thursday, with much of the talk being about Pierce’s performance at the 4 (or Pierce talking trash to Toronto and backing it up), resulting in the Wizards going up 2-0 in the series, the subject was broached with Wittman by “The Junkies” on 106.7 FM The Fan. Via Chris Lingebach:

Wittman was asked in an interview with The Sports Junkies Thursday morning if he had indeed been playing possum with his lineups all regular season, with the plan all along being to unload Pierce as a 4 on whatever opponent the Wizards faced in the postseason.

“Well, I mean, a little,” Wittman answered. “But I didn’t want to, in the regular season, stretch Paul’s minutes up into the 30, 35, 36 point at this point in his career; I wanted to try to keep him around 26 to 28 minutes, you know, to keep him fresh for this time of year. And so, playing him at the 3 and 4 during 82 games is hard to do if you’re trying to manage his minutes like we were.”

So is Randy Wittman full of it? When his team was struggling, not making 3s, looking like a teetering squad sporting a sputtering offense, why not … Or, as TAI’s Conor Dirks put it on Twitter:

“Not willing to give benefit of doubt. Team was flailing for months. If he had “Pierce at 4″ in back pocket…”

Furthermore:

“And, come on, as @MadBastardsAll and @Rob__Sly pointed out the other day, Pierce could have limited minutes splitting time between positions”

The answer or conclusion or my end to the debate:

Yes, Wittman is full of shit. More generally, but you know how it is.

While Pierce at the 4 more could have been one solution to Washington’s issues during the regular season, it not happening more was not the primary part of the problem. It is true, less than three minutes of Pierce’s 88 total versus the Raptors this season came at the 4, and Washington was swept 3-0. (Beal, of course, did not play in two of those games, so the lineup concentration might have tilted.)

The current environment: cheap Drew Gooden has been … well, good, as a stretch-4. Or rather, he has sufficed. He can’t play defense, and he wasn’t always evident as a “real” stretch-4 during the regular season (59 3-point attempts and a more ambitious 16 3-point attempts during the playoffs)—whether slow-playing was by design, or a factor of Gooden needing to get in shape, or the fact that his career is hanging on a yoga mat; could be all of the above (6). Team brass has been scrappy and creative in getting such “veterans” around the now-serving youth of Wall, Beal, and Porter (whether too many vets now disturbs a long-term balance remains to be seen). But going forward, management will have to be more creative—and just plain better—when it comes to spending money wisely on 3&D players, a true stretch-4 (who’s not the 37-year old Hall of Famer who fell in your lap after Ariza departed), and more dribble penetrators off the bench (arguably a more glaring issue than either of the former, which was addressed with a trade for Ramon Sessions).

Present day against present team, Pierce has spent 50 percent of his 64 minutes versus the Raptors at the 4 to the tune of plus-14 (meaning the Wizards are minus-1 in the 32 minutes Pierce hasn’t played 4). Will it continue to work? How will Toronto adjust? Might the Wizards need to do the same thing against Atlanta (7) in the playoffs? Up two games to nil with history on their side could quickly become clenched teeth and dramatic effect—the Wizards always make for great theater. When Pierce at the 4 is no longer a heavy-minute option, what will they think of next?


  1. Pierce at the 4 worked in Brooklyn last season, especially against last year’s Raptors in the playoffs. He played 210 minutes in the seven-game series, which the Nets won, to the tune of plus-21 in plus/minus. Virtually all of Pierce’s minutes that series versus Toronto were at the 4—depending upon if you see him at that spot in a relatively positionless world and/or when next to Alan Anderson or Andrei Kirilenko and two other guards. Brooklyn’s most-used lineup that series: Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Pierce, and Kevin Garnett—55 minutes, plus-10. Replacing Livingston with Anderson, that unit played a second-most 37 minutes to the tune of plus-20. Long footnote, I know.
  2. Pierce took up 44% of Brooklyn’s minutes at “PF” and 39% at “SF,” per 82games.com.
  3. That minute total was fourth-most on the Wizards, by the way, even if he did average a career-low 26.2 minutes per game
  4. That is, a player like the departed Trevor Ariza, who could both hit 3-pointers and defend the other team’s best player on offense.
  5. No complaints so far from any gallery, peanut or otherwise, that Humphries hasn’t played against Toronto thus far; Kevin Seraphin has also been relatively acceptable.
  6. Gooden’s 3-point Attempt Rate (3PAr—the amount of 3-points attempts over all field goal attempts) was a career-high .214 this season (.250 in the playoffs), a similar rate to Paul Millsap (.232) and Josh Smith (.231)—both stretch-4s—but Gooden shot a better percentage (39%) than either Millsap (35.6%) or Smith (31.6%) during the regular season, via Basketball-Reference.com.
  7. Or Brooklyn! Just kidding. But Atlanta can pose similar problems, save for Paul Millsap is a tougher matchup at 4 than Patrick Patterson, or Tyler Hansbrough, or James Johnson, so today’s debate could be moot tomorrow.
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Kyle Weidie
Founder / Editor / Reporter / Writer at TAI
Kyle founded TAI in 2007 and has been weaving in and out the world of Wizards ever since, ducking WittmanFaces, jumping over G-Wiz, and avoiding stints on the DNP-Conditioning list. He has covered the Washington pro basketball team as a member of the media since 2009. Kyle currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, loves basketball, and has no pets.