WASHINGTON — Usually, this town would be set ablaze with excitement over getting a 10-time NBA All-Star to bring his talents to the Phone Booth. After all, how often do the Washington Wizards entice a former Finals MVP to play in the NBA’s version of the black hole?
If there is such excitement, it’s eluded me. The Wizards made the basketball world do a double take after agreeing to a two-year, mid-level exception deal with 15- year veteran Paul Pierce, and it’s inspired more head scratching than hand clapping.
Obviously, this move would be far sexier if this were 2009. Now, Pierce is a 36 year-old streak shooter in decline who isn’t nearly the defensive presence his predecessor Trevor Ariza is. Pierce has a more recognizable name than Ariza (who was signed and traded to Houston), but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better fit in Washington.
Ariza has just as many rings as Pierce. He was the veteran leadership this team needs for up-and-coming stars John Wall and Bradley Beal. Pierce is simply coming in to fill that role, not lead the Wiz up the NBA’s yellow brick road.
But as is often the case in the NBA, this isn’t about basketball. The only reason you swap out Ariza for Pierce is to clear cap space to make a run at Prince George’s County native Kevin Durant. Pierce’s 2-year, $11 million contract with an out after the first year better accommodates a Durant homecoming than the 4-year, $32 million deal Ariza agreed to with the Rockets.
So Pierce is here as a stop gap at small forward until Durant can fill that spot, or Otto Porter Jr. can develop into a starter.
His age aside, Pierce can still contribute. Yes, he’s coming off a career-low 13.6 points per game in Brooklyn, but he’s still one of the best clutch performers in the league. According to ESPN, Pierce hit 16 clutch time three-pointers last season, which was the third-most in the NBA. So he may not be scoring in the same quantity as in years past, but it appears the quality is still there.
Personally, I’m more impressed by what this signing means off the court. While the Wizards weren’t Pierce’s top choice (the Clippers and Nets were), his interest in coming to D.C. signals a league-wide change in perception regarding the Wizards.
Basketball in this town is no longer a laughingstock or an NBA wasteland where careers go to die. Washington is now considered a place with a good balance of youthful talent and veteran leadership that can make a deep run into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Even as a Net, Pierce recognized that.
“They’re good,” Pierce said last season after his Nets were swept by the Wizards. “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 ballclub. That’s what the Washington Wizards have been waiting on, and you’re seeing it.”
Here’s another wrinkle local hoops fans will enjoy: Pierce and LeBron James are rivals. The two played each other in 5 of the last 7 postseasons, and often guard each other. If this doesn’t rekindle a Cavs-Wizards rivalry, I’m not sure what will.
No matter how you slice it, Paul Pierce wearing a Wizards uniform is highly intriguing. If you can’t bring Trevor Ariza back, this is a fine Plan B. If nothing else, it makes the 2014-2015 season in Washington must-see TV.