As parting gifts go, Sam Cassell might have delivered an all-timer when he helped lure Paul Pierce to the Washington Wizards before leaving to join Doc Rivers’s staff with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Pierce’s timely shooting and contagious confidence have helped elevate the Wizards (15-6) into a tie for second place in the Eastern Conference as they prepare to host the Clippers on Friday at Verizon Center. Cassell expects that success to continue throughout the regular season and into the playoffs.
“It’s a good situation,” Cassell said recently of Pierce and the Wizards. “I think him being there will be a tremendous help to that organization because he understands what it takes to win and knows how to win.”
Immediately after the Wizards heard that Trevor Ariza was going to join the Houston Rockets in free agency in July, Cassell was on the phone with his friend, Pierce, making a pitch for an up-and-coming team that had just advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The longtime friends, who won a championship together in Boston in 2008, had already made dinner plans in Las Vegas with Pierce in town for the World Series of Poker and Cassell with the Wizards for NBA Summer League. But that pre-planned social outing quickly turned into a business meeting in which Cassell was selling Pierce on making a deep playoff run with one of the league’s best young back courts in John Wall and Bradley Beal.
“It was kind of quick,” Cassell said about the conversation with Pierce, who had been impressed by Washington last season. “I talked to him, told him how well he’ll do with them two guys and he viewed it and made his decision. He took it seriously. He looked at the roster that we had and he realized it was a pretty good roster. He saw where he could fit in and do well at. Why wouldn’t he come and be a part of the Wizards?”
Pierce’s move to Washington was the most stunning non-LeBron free agent decision last summer, but it became a source of amusement a few weeks later when the man who helped make it happen was gone.
“I couldn’t be around for him,” Cassell said with a chuckle. Pierce “understood my situation when I explained it to him, my situation. He understood it. Him being a professional … he understood it. Did he get pissed off? I don’t think he got pissed off, but he gave me some jabs.”
Rivers had convinced Cassell that he had a future in coaching and came for him after losing assistants Tyronn Lue and Alvin Gentry to Cleveland and Golden State, respectively. The Wizards typically don’t allow coaches and front-office staff to make lateral career moves but Rivers eventually convinced team President Ernie Grunfeld to relent. A significant bump in salary made it a little easier for the Baltimore native to head to the West Coast.
“He always told me when I played for him in Boston that I could do this,” Cassell said of Rivers. “I could be good at this, because of my relationship with the players. [Rivers said,] ‘The players will take you seriously, it’s just how you present yourself to them. Once you get a good team, a team that understand how to win, your presence will show even more, Sam.’
“That’s how I did last year with John and Brad,” Cassell continued. “Them the only guys I really worked with last year and it took them a while to get them guys to understand what it’s going to take to be successful. And once them guys realized that I was with them and not against them … you know, with young guys, you got to let them do it their way first and once they realize their way don’t work, they’ll come to you.”
In five years working under Flip Saunders and Randy Wittman, Cassell was able to see the Wizards rise from league-wide laughingstock to a legitimate playoff contender. Wall and Beal both credited Cassell for helping them improve. Wall ranks second in the league assists and third in steals and Beal has been slowly recovering from a left wrist injury that kept him out the first nine games.
“It was great,” Cassell said of working with Wall and Beal. “I don’t think John had a great playoffs last year. He was solid. He was solid. Like I always tell him, ‘John, you’re the best decoy we can have.’ It’s just not him scoring the ball, it’s all the other intangible things John Wall brings to the basketball court that’s going to make him one of the best guards in this league.”
Pierce scored a season-high 28 points in Monday’s double-overtime win over Boston and passed Reggie Miller for 16th place on the all-time scoring list. Though huge scoring nights have been rare this season, Cassell expects Pierce to continue to have a huge impact on the team.
“It’s a good opportunity for him to groom two of the best young guards in the NBA in John and Brad,” Cassell said. “I know for one thing, he’ll get a lot of open shots, with John Wall as the point guard. And down the stretch, he’s a guy they can play through and he can do that, for a small amount of time and in the fourth quarter where we have trouble scoring the ball, he’ll be a guy they can play through and he can make plays for them other guys.”