For anyone seeking additional proof that the Washington Wizards are sprinting in the right direction, look no further than Saturday’s surprising acquisition of swingman Paul “The Truth” Pierce. After losing wing forward Trevor Ariza to the Houston Rockets earlier in the day, the Wizards quickly rebounded by signing a likely Hall of Famer who perfectly fits their short- and long-term plans.
The Wizards replaced last season’s top three-point shooter and a leader in the locker room with someone who has been better in those roles for longer. They continued to remake their image, luring a high-profile player who only a few years ago likely would have laughed at the notion of coming to Washington via free agency. And Pierce, who turns 37 in October, will gladly watch from the bench at times while the Wizards take steps to develop Otto Porter Jr. The Wizards added a savvy champion who can help them move forward.
Nonetheless, they hoped Ariza would keep the job. On the court and off it, Ariza was outstanding during a wonderful season that ended in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Eager to maintain continuity, owner Ted Leonsis and President Ernie Grunfeld developed a sound offseason plan: Do whatever it took to re-sign center Marcin Gortat, and try to bring back Ariza, too.
After locking up Gortat with a five-year, $60 million deal on the first day teams could negotiate with players, the Wizards made Ariza a fair, four-year, $32 million offer. He wound up accepting the same deal from the Rockets. Texas doesn’t tax income, so Ariza will pocket more money. It was a smart business decision. To fill the hole, the Wizards made one as well, offering Pierce a two-year contract worth the full mid-level exception of $10.8 million.
A 10-time all-star and former NBA Finals MVP, Pierce was productive for the Brooklyn Nets, for whom he played last season after 15 with the Boston Celtics.
In 75 games, Pierce averaged 13.5 points while making 45.1 percent of his field goal attempts. And for the Wizards, here’s the number that matters most: 37.3. That’s what Pierce shot beyond the three-point arc.
In Coach Randy Wittman’s offense, the wing forward must be a consistent three-point shooter. Last season, Ariza made a personal-best 40.7 percent of his three-pointers and is a career 34.7 percent shooter. Three times, Pierce has shot at least 40.4 percent and is at 37 percent overall. In that area, Pierce could be an upgrade.
He’s also comfortable standing at the front of the line. During Boston’s most recent run of success — from the 2007-08 season to the 2011-12 season, the Celtics won five consecutive division titles, appeared in two NBA Finals and won one title — Pierce emerged as one of the league’s most respected leaders. Young players tend to listen to veterans who are at their best in closing victories. Pierce has been a superb closer. Just ask the Wizards, whom he tormented through the years with late-game shots. And unlike Ariza, Pierce often shoots off the dribble.
Pierce handles the ball well. That should be an added bonus on offense; the Wizards stalled too often during the conference semifinal loss to the Pacers. When point guard John Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal struggled, the Wizards had no one to take control and get his own shot. That’s a big part of Pierce’s game.
“It’s a blessing, man, to have that kind of leadership, that kind of experience come to your team,” Wizards assistant Sam Cassell told The Post’s Michael Lee in Las Vegas. “He’s going to uplift this whole ball club. It was big that we got him.”
Meantime, we’re apparently about to learn a lot more about Porter. After Leonsis issued a playoff-or-else mandate before the season, Wittman, not surprisingly, relied heavily on veterans. Leaning on inexperienced players as they learn on the job often results in coaches cleaning out their offices. With the security of a contract extension, Wittman is expected to elevate Porter to the regular rotation.
That’s fine with Pierce, who would rather save his energy for the fourth quarter. If Ariza had returned, Porter still would have been slated for a bigger role. But Ariza, who won’t turn 30 until next June, is much younger than Pierce. Wittman must manage Pierce’s minutes carefully. With minutes to fill, Porter figures to get what he didn’t have last season:opportunities to prove himself in games.
Then there’s the Kevin Durant situation. It’s the NBA’s worst-kept secret that the Wizards plan to aggressively pursue the one-time All-Met Player of the Year from Montrose Christian, who can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2015-16 season. Although they were willing to commit to Ariza for four years, having Pierce on a two-year contract — he can opt out after next season — works better in their strategy.
No situation is perfect, though, and the Wizards’ critics could pick apart the Pierce move. Ariza is much better defensively. But the Wizards don’t need Pierce to be the dynamic scorer he once was. They have Wall, Beal and Gortat to carry the offense. The Wizards need him to be dependable. He can still do that.
After Ariza bolted, the Wizards faced some big questions. They answered them with The Truth.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.