The Gospel of Paul: What Pierce Means to the Wizards | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

The Gospel of Paul: What Pierce Means to the Wizards

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Updated: June 20, 2015
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[original photo via Greg Fiume]

In lieu of another week of slovenly blogslumber, we come out of hibernation today to talk about Paul Pierce, and what he means to the Washington Wizards. Why? Because the NBA Finals have come to a close, because the Draft is still several days away, but most pressingly because the reports that emerged in May regarding Paul Pierce’s potential desire to return to his hometown (in Pierce’s case Los Angeles) to play for the Clippers have been seasoned with the crushed dust of tangible reality. Between Game 4 and Game 5 of the Finals, the Clippers traded their starting small forward, Matt Barnes, and gag toilet paper-owner Spencer Hawes, to Charlotte for Lance Stephenson, creating a small-forward sized hole in their starting lineup.

Pierce has a player option good for $5.5 million dollars for next season. He likely won’t be able to sign more than the $3.37 million mini-midlevel exception with the Clippers, but a $2.13 million difference isn’t exactly the kind of “too good to turn down” deal that would stave off sentimentality, comfort, and the perception of increased title odds if Pierce decided that he wanted to reunite with Doc Rivers, who coached Pierce’s Celtics to a championship in 2008. Another option, and one that Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has plainly spoken power to, is Pierce opting-out and renegotiating a deal with the Wizards, who may very well feel comfortable modifying Pierce’s contract in the meme king’s favor. Here’s Leonsis, via the Washington Post, via the Emmy-emboldened and Leonsis-funded Monumental Network: “I hope he comes back. His deal is, he can say ‘I want to come back,’ and he would be welcomed with open arms. He might say ‘I don’t want to come back, I want to negotiate,’ and we would do that. He might say I want to go somewhere else. He’s earned that.”

The timing of this Leonsis quote, and the Ted’s Take that followed on Leonsis’ blog (which, correct me if I’m wrong, reader, appears to be the first Leonsis blog post ever accompanied by a thumbnail image), seems to be a very public, and very appropriate, Cusack-with-a-boombox moment after the Clippers trade removed a hurdle between Pierce and Los Angeles. Here’s Leonsis’ “In Your Eyes” chorus:

“Paul Pierce is a Hall-of-Fame player, and he brought so much to the Wizards this year – on the court as well as off. When people struggle to describe the “It Factor,” all they need to do is look at Paul. He was an incredibly valuable piece to our puzzle this year, and he expressed to us what a positive experience he had with our team, organization and city. I hope he has a desire to return to the Wizards next season and continue to build upon what he started.”

Oh dear. I just aggregated. (It’s a new offseason, it’s a new me, it’s a new webscape.)

The Wizards will be “fine” with or without Pierce, but will be better if he stays. Although Wall and Beal may have already learned enough about intangible gritfactors like “wanting it” and “greatness” and “that edge” and “trash talk that actually bothers opposing players” from the Hall-of-Famer, another year with Pierce could cement those lessons as more than just “Paul Was Here” on a still-soft sidewalk. Who’s going to be waiting on the sideline to embrace young Dash and young Splash like the ragamuffins they are after they’ve done good?

Although game-winning shots and incredible one-liners buoyed Pierce’s playoff performance, the 37-year old did look long in all the teeth on many defensive possessions. But that hardly matters. Pierce’s impact really can’t be measured with the grim, hoary coffee spoon that we use to determine the impact of less singular NBA players.

What was fantastic about Pierce’s playoff run is what should motivate the Wizards to bring him back. For the first time in his playoff career, Pierce shot more 3-point shots (6.3 attempts per game) than he did 2-point shots (3.6 attempts per game). He made 52 percent of those 3-pointers. For a team like Washington that was already short on deep threats, it was essential. Pierce can play two positions (even if he can only defend one), sure. He can also adapt his style of play, and is smart enough to know what the team needs from him.

Small ball, that fast-paced and spread-out artillery battery the Wizards deployed in the playoffs, won’t always be the answer, especially as it becomes standard around the league, but Pierce can catalyze incredible results as one of many beneficiaries of a liberated John Wall. To those concerned that Pierce’s presence eats into Otto Porter’s playing time: I know your heart, but you don’t have to worry. While Pierce swaps between the 3 and the 4, Porter will do the same between the 3 and the 2. Now that it’s clear that Porter can play, there’s no rush to make him an immediate starter with Pierce on hand to show him the ropes.

And the zings. Joy is important, you know? With brains already irradiated with the luxury of victory, Pierce’s “I called game” brought about ecstatic cerebral frenzy and actual human laughter to a populace best known for relentlessly collecting business cards at social gatherings.

Randy Wittman’s end-of-the-season press availability, that stressed he’d finally figured out that increased pace could maximize his young backcourt’s abilities, will be a cause for hope for many, even if it’s probably wise to be skeptical. And yet, Washington’s new (smart) plan to feature 3-point shooting from four of the five players on the court and speed things up would be conditionally hampered if Pierce left town. So hope that he doesn’t, because Pierce is affordable too, and the Wizards aren’t likely to spend the cash required for a proper stretch (or “playmaking”) 4 with a run at Kevin Durant a mere season away.

Below, TAI’s Adam Rubin (@LedellsPlace) and Rashad Mobley (@rashad20) got words, too.

Adam Rubin (@LedellsPlace):

I don’t even know if we can question whether the Wizards should bring Paul Pierce back. He is a national treasure. You saw what he did in the playoffs, right?

Sure, Pierce is not the player he once was. There were often times in the playoffs when he shouldn’t have been on the floor – like any late-game defensive possession – and the team got a noticeable jolt every time Otto Porter came off the bench.

That’s really the crux of this debate. The only reason anyone could possibly want Paul Pierce to leave Washington is to clear playing time for Otto. Porter certainly had a coming out party in the playoffs and appears ready to grab the reins as a starting small forward.

If Pierce makes it clear to Randy Wittman that he isn’t ready to play Andre Iguodala to Otto’s Harrison Barnes and accept a bench role, then maybe the front office should take pause. But Pierce has given no indication that would be the case. He has been nothing but supportive and encouraging of Washington’s young core, even offering to punch Otto to awaken his inner beast.

Washington offers the perfect situation for Pierce. He can play 20-25 minutes per game in the regular season and take off games whenever he wants. He is basically on a flex schedule from November through April. If John Wall, Bradley Beal and Porter progress as hoped during the regular season, Pierce won’t even be required to play as big of a role in the playoffs as he did this season. He can still take the big shots, but he won’t have to log 35 minutes before doing so.

Perhaps most importantly, Pierce’s presence in the locker room will help protect the Wizards from their greatest regular season foe: complacency. The front office may be satisfied with Washington’s 46-win season and return trip to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but Pierce is not. He speaks the Truth with a level of frankness and authority that no other individual in the Wizards organization possesses.

Finally, there’s always the question of replacement cost. If Pierce opts in, he will make $5.5 million next season. But that does not mean Washington could spend his $5.5 million salary on another player if Pierce leaves. Washington will be over the cap with or without Pierce. Therefore, losing Pierce does not free up any cap space. This is a very different situation than the Trevor Ariza debate last off-season. Everyone agreed that Ariza was a great fit for the Wizards, but the question was whether Trevor was worth giving up four years of precious cap space. There is no such dilemma with Pierce. The Truth can stick around for one more year of mentorship and Washington’s cap sheet remains intact.

Rashad Mobley (@rashad20)

Before, during and after the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors head coach and the players–from Stephen Curry to Klay Thompson to Draymond Green–raved about Andre Iguodala’s performance off the court. Yes they raved about his versatility and his knack to both facilitate on offense and shut down (or slow down, in LeBron James’ case) the opposing team’s strongest offensive player, but they were most impressed with two things: his professionalism and his sacrifice.

Steve Kerr said of Iguodala’s willingness to sacrifice and buy in:

“It’s one of the most gratifying parts of the season. That’s really what you hope for as a coach. That each guy is going to accept a role and understand that that role is designed to make the team better and that it may cost him some minutes and some points and all that stuff. But if everyone buys in, and believes, you’ve got a pretty strong, powerful force.”

Draymond Green took it a step further and said Iguodala saved the season:

John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and the rest of the Wizards did not have the opportunity to sing Paul Pierce’s praises on the grand NBA Finals podium. But during the season, after their demise in six games at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks, and even this past week in Ted Leonsis’ blog, the not-so-obvious impact of Pierce’s off-the-court contributions were emphasized just as much as his obvious impact on it. Even when Pierce questioned John Wall’s desire to take the next step during his rant to Jackie MacMullan, Wall took his words in stride and said he had no problem with Pierce trying to make him great(er). Reactions and praise like that show a certain trust is in place, and that’s not something the Wizards can afford to lose going into this 2015-2016 season.

This past season was about building on the Wizards first playoff appearance (back in 2013-2014) in 16 years, and Pierce came to DC to assist with that process. The Wizards improved record-wise despite some mid-season stumbles, but after they swept the Toronto Raptors, expectations were sky-high that they could advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Maybe it was John Wall’s injury, maybe it was Nene’s passiveness, or maybe Pierce should have pulled even more miracle magic out of his pocket. But for whatever accumulation of reasons, the Wizards again fell victim to a better, higher-seeded team in the second round of the playoffs.

The pressure, the expectations and the stakes will be much higher during the upcoming 2015-2016 season. The Wizards are still Wall’s team, but he’ll need to shoot better and continue to be an All-Star level passer and defender. Beal and Porter need to cement themselves into more consistent production. Coach Wittman will have to make decisions on how to effectively use Nene and Gortat. Ernie Grunfeld and his front-office crew must make roster upgrades via draft or trade, since Pierce is inclined to be less interested in staying on a stagnant team. But the easiest decision to make is to make sure Pierce comes back for one more year.

Given how physically and mentally drained he was at the end of the season, Pierce will most likely have no qualms about coming off the bench, or playing more limited regular season minutes. He’s seen what a lighter workload has done for veterans like Tim Duncan and Vince Carter, and he also knows that the playoffs are where he will expend the majority of his remaining energy. He should be on a Nene-like 25-minutes a game limit, and and as the playoffs get closer the minutes and his role should gradually expand. By that time, he’ll be fresher, and hopefully his teammates will have learned how to win without him. That way, any big shots he can hit will be the gravy that can push them past the second round.

Ironically enough, Pierce’s arrival last season was not universally seen as a boon because he replaced Trevor Ariza, who with his 3-point shooting, defensive prowess and ability to find that perfect spacing in the open court, seemed like a model fit for the speedy backcourt of Wall and Beal. It took the entire regular season and playoffs for Pierce to prove he was every bit as important as Ariza was, and then some, simply by hitting shot after shot after almost shot. If that security blanket is taken away from this young Wizards team, it would represent the second major personnel loss in two years, which could easily be used as an excuse for yet another premature playoff exit.

If Pierce was to come back—which at the present date is still a big if—the Wizards need to bring him back. If they can go into his draft and offseason knowing they have Wall, Beal, Porter, and Gortat in the starting lineup, Nene and Pierce off the bench, and whoever Grunfeld brings in to improve the roster, the foundation for a deep playoff run is set. No Pierce equals uncertainty and the dreaded “who-is-going-to-step-up” question. No thank you.

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Conor Dirks
Reporter / Writer / Co-Editor at TAI
Conor has been with TAI since 2012, and aids in the seamless editorial process that brings you the kind of high-octane blogging you have come to expect from this rad website. The Wizards have been an assiduous companion throughout his years on the cosmic waiver wire. He lives in D.C. and is day-to-day.