Remember who the Washington Wizards were last season? They were a borderline playoff team in the East, expected to compete for the last two seeds with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons. Bradley Beal was seen as an injury-prone, high-volume shooting guard and Emeka Okafor was on track to be the team’s starting center.
ESPN’s Summer 2013 Predictions
|RANK||TEAM||W||L||PCT||’13 W||’13 L||’13 PCT|
|5||New York Knicks||46||36||.561||54||28||.659|
What are they now? With LeBron James headed to Cleveland, they are one of the teams in the mix to take hold of the East that has no one dominant team (as long as Kevin Love stays off of the Cavaliers). Marcin Gortat looks to be the starting center for at least another three or four years. And they just became a destination for future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce.
After signing Pierce to a two-year, $10.8 million deal, everyone closed the book of Washington’s offseason. They had their starting five in place despite losing Trevor Ariza, and are now in line to go up against the rest of the good-to-a-little-more-than-good teams in the conference.
In the Ariza department, I’d rather have him on the roster than Pierce at this point in time, but by the time the season is over, it’s doubtful that we’ll be looking to storm Ernie Grunfeld’s office for the Pierce deal.
My favorite part of the Pierce signing is that the Wizards didn’t over-pay for Ariza. As soon as the season ended, the “Hey Wizards fans, you ready to pay too much for Trevor Ariza?” jokes started pouring in. We all knew it was going to happen.
Had they given Ariza the same deal as the Rockets did, Ariza would be 33 by the time the deal ends. At that point, you have an aging Ariza and Gortat (we’ll get to his deal in a minute) that would literally be weighing down the roster and the payroll. Giving Ariza that deal would also assume he could continue to keep up the production he had last year.
His 40.7 percent shooting from three was the highest mark of his career. The highest mark he ever reached on a team not named the Wizards was 33.4 percent with the Rockets during the 2009-10 season, when he chucked up an average of 5.7 three-pointers per game, the same number of attempts he had with the Wizards this year.
I don’t expect his defense to fall off at all, but the three-point shooting that made him so popular in Washington last year will be hard to keep up going forward. Simply put, Ariza would have to play above his normal level for the next four years to be worth that contract, and depending on how much you value defense, he’s not worth the contract Houston gave him.
Out of all the small forwards who played at least six minutes per game last year, Ariza was tied for 26th in usage rate (the estimate of the percentage of team plays that the player is involved in while he’s on the floor). Ariza’s usage rate was 16.8 lower than players like Pierce, Jeff Green, Chandler Parsons, Evan Turner and Terrence Ross. Comparatively in Washington, John Wall’s usage rate was 27.7, Bradley Beal’s was 23, Nene’s was 22.7 and Gortat’s was 16.9. So out of that starting five, Ariza was actually used the least in Washington’s playbook.
Pierce is no longer the athlete he used to be, at 36, but his specialty is the lag-behind three-pointer. On fastbreaks, Pierce can run with Wall down the floor, wait for Wall to drive, and wait at the perimeter for a kick-out pass. Pierce actually made 62.5 percent of his shots from the left corner near the baseline and 38.3 percent from three, which is higher than Ariza’s career mark from beyond the arc.
The biggest thing Washington is lacking now is a No. 1 defender. Ariza used to always guard the opponent’s best perimeter player. Look at this defense on Steph Curry when Curry was trying to win the game in the last seconds.
Pierce can guard inside, but isn’t quick enough on the perimeter anymore to guard the likes of Paul George, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, etc., assignments that would usually fall to Ariza. At this point, we have no idea who the best perimeter defender is on the Wizards. But if Nene is injured, there’s a good chance Pierce moves inside to power forward, which he did when Brook Lopez went down in Brooklyn last year.
Among Nets players who played in 50 games (so Lopez excluded), Pierce was second on the team in holding opponents at the rim, allowing them to make just 48.2 percent of their shots from there, which only trailed Kevin Garnett.
Which brings us to DeJuan Blair. If the trade goes through that sends Blair to the Wizards, having Pierce is even more important because of his flexibility as a forward. One would assume having Blair in Washington means that Trevor Booker won’t be back. It’s tough to say one of them is better than the other, because they are two totally different players.
Booker shot 39.2 percent between 16 and 24 feet last year, compare to Blair, who only attempted 27 shots from that range all year. Blair is much more likely to get inside near the hoop and bang around than square up and shoot. When the inevitable Nene injury comes, pairing Blair with Gortat could clog the point. They both are best when playing close to the rim, and in the Princeton offense, Wall needs a lane to the basket to drive and eventually attempt a layup or kick it out.
Blair and Gortat would block those lanes. If Nene misses time, having Pierce and Blair allows the Wizards to be flexible with their rotations. Pierce could play the 4 with Gortat/Blair at the 5. Or, Blair could play the 4 with Drew Gooden at the 5 (assuming the Wizards bring him back), because Gooden plays farther away from the hoop.
Having that flexibility also opens up some opportunities for Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr., who are both impressing in the Summer League.
Rotations aside, Blair makes a lot of sense for the Wizards. The biggest concern with Gortat’s deal is how old he’ll be by the time it expires. Blair is only 24 still, and brings a lot of things to the table that any NBA team wants in a big man. Blair’s defensive rebounding percentage (an estimate of how many rebound opportunities he converts on) was 21.6 percent his year, his highest number since the 2010-11 season with the Spurs. Gortat’s defensive rebounding was at 25.1 percent last year.
Blair is also a guy with a high motor (sorry for the cliché) and has a lot of fight in him. That fits well into what the Wizards are going for (a la the #FreeNene movement in the playoffs).
Finally, we have the Gortat deal. Will he be worth that deal when he’s 34? No way. But, it’s not going to be a Carlos Boozer-level contract bust. Prior to coming to the NBA, Gortat played in just 14 games in the Euroleague with RheinEnergie Cologne.
In his four years with the Orlando Magic, Gortat started only five games, averaging no more than 15.8 minutes per game in a season. He’s only been a consistent starter in the league for three years now (two with the Suns). We’re not looking at Boozer-level minutes, who prior to this year, had never played in less than 31.1 minutes per game in the 10 years after his rookie campaign.
The Wizards needed a center no matter what, and Gortat was the best center available in free agency. If they chose to move on from the Polish Hammer, they’re staring at pursuing Channing Frye (not a traditional big man), Andrew Bynum, Glen Davis, Chris Kaman, Spencer Hawes, Greg Monroe (restricted) or Kris Humphries. This just wasn’t a good free-agent class, and the Wizards were better off over-paying for Gortat, given that they were either going to overpay for someone like Hawes or Kaman or grab a veteran like Richard Jefferson who would give nothing more than another year in the league as a starter.
The contract isn’t perfect, but it was the best of what Grunfeld had at his disposal.
There’s still some things we don’t know about Washington’s offseason. There’s some holes on the bench in the backcourt, Martell Webster could be viewed as a trade piece with his injury and the rise of Rice and Porter (think Emeka Okafor from last offseason) and Booker, Kevin Seraphin and Gooden still don’t have homes.
But at least we do know that the Wizards surprised people this offseason by singing Pierce, they got a solid forward after losing out on Ariza, and they now have flexibility during the 2016 offseason (think Kevin Durant).
Note: All stats used were from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.