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The Washington Wizards wasted no time replacing Trevor Ariza, signing Paul Pierce to a two-year, $10 million deal.
Pierce, who turns 37 next season, is nearly eight years older than Ariza and nearing the end of his career. Despite his age, signing Pierce is a savvier move than keeping Ariza, who signed a four-year, $32 million contract with the Houston Rockets. The Wizards received an $8.5 million trade exception from the Rockets as part of the deal.
By signing Pierce, the Wizards maintain cap space and flexibility in the all-important summer of 2016 for Bradley Beal’s extension. It is also the summer a certain D.C. native (Kevin Durant) becomes a free agent. As it stands, the Wizards will only have Marcin Gortat and John Wall on the books in 2016 (roughly $28 million combined), leaving more than $30 million in cap space, which should be enough for another max star, depending on Beal’s extension.
Salaries aside, the basketball disparity between Pierce and Ariza is not as wide as their ages might lead you to believe.
Defensively, the Wizards allowed 102.4 points per 100 possessions last season, ninth in the league, with Ariza often defending the other team’s best perimeter scorer. The Nets were a mid-table defensive team (allowing 104.9 per 100 possessions), but Pierce’s impact was noticeable (his per-100 defensive number was 101.6).
You can see how each stacked up defensively below.
Although Ariza clearly has the athletic edge, the defensive drop-off should not be as noticeable as previously thought, although it may mean a larger role for Beal on that end, especially against quicker guards.
The bigger issue may be floor spacing. Ariza enjoyed a career shooting year, averaging 40.7 percent from three-point range, compared with Pierce, who shot 37.3 percent.
The problem with extrapolating those numbers, of course, is the sample size. For the second time in his career, Ariza flourished in a contract year. If you look at their respective career numbers, Pierce (37 percent) is in fact a better shooter than Ariza (34.7 percent).
Overall, Ariza is the better player at this stage in his career when factoring in win shares (Ariza led second-tier free agents with eight, while Pierce had 5.2) and in a vacuum, you could make a strong case that Ariza would have been the better signing.
But money matters and in today’s NBA, salary cap flexibility is at a premium. The Wizards feature a young, improving back court, which could make D.C. a preferred destination for free agents in coming years, as Pierce said earlier this season.
“They’re good,” Pierce said. “They’re coming into their own. They’re growing up right before our eyes. You’ve seen their struggles over the years, and John Wall has matured as a player, obviously, becoming an All-Star this year and taking on more responsibilities and becoming a leader for this ball club. That’s what the Washington Wizards have been waiting on, and you’re seeing it.”
Ultimately, the financial flexibility going forward compensates for the minimal drop-off in production.