Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman was posed the question in a variety of ways a couple times per week in cities across the country, before and after games, for almost nine months.
“What kind of impact has Paul Pierce had on your team?” a reporter would ask and nearly every time Wittman would have his answer prepared: Pierce has had a tremendous influence, both on and off the court. He’s a future Hall of Famer who garners respect, the kind of piece needed to take the next step.
Pierce’s impact was biggest in the playoffs. But after the Wizards’ season concluded in the most devastating of ways with a Game 6 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night, an emotional Pierce, who had his game-tying three-pointer overturned after referees determined he did not release the ball in time, said he wasn’t sure if he would return next season. Pierce, 37, has a player option for nearly $6 million. Wittman said late Friday that he believes Pierce will return for his 18th season.
“I’d love him back. I think he wants to be back. I don’t know, I won’t put words in his mouth, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t,” Wittman said. “I think what he saw with these guys and the heart this team has. Why wouldn’t you want to play the end of your career with a group like that?”
Pierce averaged career lows across the board during the regular season but was unleashed for the postseason. He was used at power forward for long stretches – something Wittman said he avoided during the regular season to save his legs – and averaged 14.6 points on 48.5 percent shooting, including 52.4 percent from three-point range, in 29.8 minutes. But he became the center of attention for more than his production. A comment he made in an interview with ESPN, questioning whether the Toronto Raptors had “it,” became the story line of their first-round series. He proceeded to shoot and troll the Raptors out of the postseason with a sweep.
He had a tougher time at both ends of the floor in the second round – he shot a combined 4 of 16 in the final two games and encountered trouble defending Paul Millsap – but took a go-ahead or game-tying shot with less than 10 seconds remaining in each of the final four games. He made three of the shots, including when he called “game” with a jumper off the glass at the buzzer in Game 3. He shouted “series” at the Hawks’ bench when he drained a go-ahead three-pointer with 8.3 seconds left in Game 5, but the Wizards would go on to lose that game, and three of the final four.
“Guys like him that are Hall of Famers never cease to amaze you and I thought he was a real big lift for us this year,” Wittman said. “Not only what he did on the floor but his leadership and direction that he gave us in the locker room with these guys. You can’t coach that. That’s something you either have or you don’t. He’s got it. He gave us all he could in these two series. We rode him.”
More on the Wizards and the NBA playoffs:
On the NBA: Miserable ending is so Wizards