The Truth is gone now, back to his native Los Angeles, taking his veteran mettle and late “Game!”-calling theatrics away from a Washington Wizards franchise that so benefited from his one-season stopover.
The truth is back, too, and while it’s not Paul Pierce-sized, his departure magnifies a burdensome reality: For as fun as the Wizards’ 2014-15 season (especially the playoffs) was, they’re going to have a hard time duplicating the success.
That would have been the case even if Pierce hadn’t decided to reunite with his old Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers and sign a three-year contract with the Clippers. Without Pierce, the challenge is greater, not because the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer is irreplaceable but rather the Wizards are in a pickle trying to maintain progress and keep salary cap room available for 2016’s Summer of Durant.
As close as the Wizards were to the Eastern Conference finals — perhaps a John Wall hand injury or a sliver of a Game 6 second from extending the Atlanta series — there is no easy, immediate next step for next season, not with the franchise trying to preserve the hope of Kevin Durant returning home.
For fans who have suffered long enough, who waited 36 years just to see the Wizards have a record as good as last season’s 46-36 mark, a potentially stagnant year sounds almost as unappealing as a reunion with Swaggy P.
The young core of Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. is again tasked with elevating the franchise. Even if Pierce had re-signed, progress still would’ve been mostly about Wall, Beal and Porter, but now they must carry on without a strong veteran leader willing to share what stardom requires.
It’s not Pierce’s 11.9 points a game or his 38.9 percent three-point shooting that the Wizards will miss the most. They can make up for Pierce’s production in a variety of ways. It’s his savvy, swagger and clutch performance. It’s his presence.
And with the Wizards planning for a year from now, it’s the fact that they lost a capable player making mid-level money who had interest in signing a short-term deal.
The NBA salary cap is rising, and after next season, it is set to explode when the league’s new nine-year, $24 billion television deal starts. This summer, it is already difficult to find what the Wizards are seeking for one-year deals: productive, rotational players who earn between $2.5 and $5.5 million.
Look at the market. You’re not only seeing Kevin Love get the expected $110 million. You’re seeing Amir Johnson, who averaged 9.3 points and 6.1 rebounds last season, get $24 million on a two-year deal — and people are lauding the Celtics’ financial sensibility. Want a combo forward who fits the “stretch-four” mold? Oklahoma City just gave Kyle Singler nearly $25 million over five years. And we haven’t even gotten to Milwaukee guard Khris Middleton’s $70 million deal.
Washington has a collection of resources to acquire new players: the mid-level exception ($5.464 million) and biannual exception ($2.139 million) in addition to trade exceptions — one of which they used Thursday on Jared Dudley. But they will need to wait for some of the league’s big spenders this summer to run out of money and hope there are some quality role players still available at the right price.
The patient approach helped the Wizards land Pierce a year ago. This time, there probably won’t be a player waiting who is as accomplished as Pierce. But there are intriguing players who fit the Wizards’ system. In particular, Rodney Stuckey makes sense, but keeping Drew Gooden III in the fold remains important.
The Wizards also need to follow up on their interest in playing more of the faster, wide-open, free-flowing style they employed against Toronto and Atlanta in the playoffs. Find more shooters and athletes and maximize the talents of Wall, an all-star who collapses defenses with regularity and combines incredible physical ability with excellent playmaking instincts.
Make a strong commitment to the style, and the Wizards will be more versatile. Beal should thrive, and maybe he will grow into a borderline all-star. Porter will grow more comfortable as a do-it-all small forward. Center Marcin Gortat will benefit from the spacing, and power forward Nene can be used even more selectively.
Will that make the Wizards better? With a year of good luck staying healthy, maybe. But most likely, they will be scuffling to remain a 46-win, second-round team in an Eastern Conference that could see improvements from several teams that finished behind the Wizards last season, including Miami, Milwaukee, Boston and Indiana. Meanwhile, Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago and Toronto still look good on paper.
It’s a wise decision for the Wizards to remain in the theoretical Durant sweepstakes. It’s a championship play, which is much better than building a team that would remain stuck at above average.
But the gamble could come with a price — a chance at progress next season — and that may be a factor in Durant’s decision.
And with half of the league expected to have cap space for a max-salary player next summer, the waiting game for Durant is about to become as stressful as it gets.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.