The Washington Wizards caught the basketball world by surprise with their value signing of Paul Pierce, nabbing an able starter for the mid-level exception.
The former Brooklynite’s meal ticket last season was mismatch-creating play from the power forward spot. Although he isn’t nearly as nimble as in years past, Pierce can still draw fouls well enough and use his repertoire of clever fakes to find points for his squad, especially against players slightly bigger than he that can’t keep up. He also redefined himself as a three-point shooter, finishing with the highest rate of shots attempted from long distance in his career last season. However, all of these good things will likely cease if the Wizards plan to use Pierce as a replacement for Trevor Ariza.
Ariza started for the Wiz at the small forward throughout the 2013-14 season before inking a deal with the Houston Rockets this summer. Washington’s now down a three man, and according to Marc Stein, Pierce may be their solution at the position.
Washington moves quickly to get its replacement for Trevor Ariza. Paul Pierce’s stay in Brooklyn lasts only one season
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 13, 2014
Pierce had a strong season with the Nets, but only after Brook Lopez’s injury forced head coach Jason Kidd into playing small-ball. Prior to this shake up, Pierce wasn’t scoring efficiently in the slightest at the three, tallying an effective field goal percentage of just 46.6%. Following Kidd’s change in approach, Pierce’s shooting improved substantially, to a 56.4% eFG%. With the added spacing and Pierce’s slipperiness again bigger, slower fours making up for his decline in athleticism, the Nets were able to generate better looks for Pierce, and the ball started going through the net more often. Most telling is Pierce’s uptick in three-point shooting after the switch to small-ball, going from a sub-par 34% shooting from deep to 38.8% and taking slightly more attempts from deep per game despite a bit of a drop in playing time.
Here, though, is the kicker: Not only was Pierce unable to find good looks with two traditional bigs on the floor, but his preferred spots don’t align with those Ariza got in the Wizards offense. Corner threes made up 40.7% of Ariza’s looks from deep, but only 7.3% of Pierce’s. Pierce prefers to work from the top of the floor or the elbow. His commitment to launching from deep last season was an improvement; the question becomes whether or not such improvement fits with Washington.
On the defensive end, Pierce can no longer stay in front of today’s wings successfully, with his foot speed far from peak form. His strength and mass are still there, though, enough so to stand his ground well in the post against opposing frontcourt players. Pierce ranked 69th in post-up defense last season, allowing just .78 points per play according to Synergy Sports. Having him guard quicker, more explosive wings for 25+ minutes a night in some semblance of Trevor Ariza’s role, however, could spell an unending stream of dribble penetration into the lane for Wizards opponents.
Not only does it makes sense for the Wizards to avoid having Pierce play the three, then, but Pierce can help provide frontcourt depth that Washington needs. Outside of starters Marcin Gortat and Nene, the only big man under contract with Washington is Kevin Seraphin. Pierce as a backup four would not only shorten his minutes – reducing the risk of wear and tear – but give the Wiz the option of going to a smaller lineup when needed.
The major issue with not inserting Pierce in Ariza’s vacancy is the lack of other options available to the Wizards. There’s veteran Martell Webster, who shot 39.2% from three-point range and is a capable defender with decent size. Otto Porter – Washington’s third overall pick in the 2013 Draft – impressed in his Summer League debut with the havoc he created on the defensive end and he has plenty of upside. Neither of these options will meet the standards Trevor Ariza set last year, but considering his lack of success at the same position, Pierce may not come close himself.