In a move that lends significant credibility to their upward trajectory, free agent Paul Pierce opted to sign a two-year, $10 million contract with the Washington Wizards. Pierce is a veteran with plenty left to offer a team like the Wizards looking for a deep playoff run.
Making an appearance at summer league, Pierce's most recent head coach, Jason Kidd, had nothing but good things to say about the move the Wizards made (h/t Ben Standig of CSNWashington.com):
He's going to help them all and they're going to help him. When you talk about work ethic, he comes every day early to do his job. He's been in a lot of battles, classic championships. He's going to help these guys understand what it takes to win.
But Kidd is speaking in the language of sports cliches, and there is nothing specific in there about how Pierce is going to fit on the court with his new teammates or replace the hugely important Trevor Ariza, who departed in free agency for the Houston Rockets.
Ariza filled two enormous holes for the Wizards last season—he was their best wing defender, usually tackling the toughest perimeter defensive assignment, and he was deadly spot-up shooter.
You can see from his shot chart how prolific Ariza was from behind the arc.
According to NBA.com's SportVU Player Tracking statistics, of regular rotation players who attempted at least two catch-and-shoot three-pointers per game last season, Ariza ranked 16th in three-point percentage at 43.5 percent.
Pierce was no slouch himself from behind the arc, and he was nipping at Ariza's heels in terms of catch-and-shoot three-point percentage, coming in at 39.5 percent. You can see from his shot chart that he had a similar array of hot spots from behind the three-point line as Ariza.
However, there were some big differences in how some of those three-point opportunities were created, differences that hint at Pierce having a more difficult time filling Ariza's shoes than one might think.
According to mySynergySports (subscription required), Ariza attempted 152 three-pointers in transition last season—30.8 percent of all his three-point attempts. Pierce attempted just 53 three-pointers in transition last season—15.0 percent of all his three-point attempts.
A lot of that difference has to do with tempo. The Wizards played at an average pace of 95.45 possessions per game last season. When Pierce was on the floor for the Nets, their average pace was 93.76 possessions—quite a bit slower.
You can see from the video below that both Ariza and Pierce are adept at finding space to launch three-pointers while trailing a fast break:
The difference is that Ariza's (relative) youth and speed allowed him to take advantage of these opportunities much more frequently than Pierce could. Having John Wall blazing a trail up the court will undoubtedly open up a few more of these spots for Pierce, but it's up to him to put his head down and motor into position. This is not as easy a task for him as it would have been a few seasons ago.
The importance of these transition three-pointers cannot be understated. The Wizards scored 15.6 percent of their points on the fast break last season, sixth-most in the league, and it was a huge pressure valve for an offense that often struggled in the half court.
But while Pierce may not give the Wizards quite as much as Ariza in the open court, he can be a huge asset with their half-court struggles, particularly at the end of games. SB Nation's Mike Prada talked a little about how Pierce can change the Wizards' crunch time offense:
Pierce's clutch play is also a huuuuge reason for this signing. You don't need me to tell you how painstakingly awful the Wizards' crunch-time offense was at times last year. You also don't need me to tell you how many times Pierce has come up big in huge situations throughout his career. A 1-3 or 1-4 pick and roll with Wall and Pierce immediately becomes the Wizards' bread and butter set play late in games. Both players can take advantage of a sliver of daylight to get what they want.
Switching gears to defense, we see a similar trade-off. Although Pierce has some real positives to offer, they're a little bit different than what the Wizards got from Ariza last season.
By ESPN's Real Plus-Minus statistic, Pierce was the third-most impactful defender at the small forward position last season. However, that number is somewhat misleading because he spent a lot of time playing power forward in small lineups for the Nets.
That fact that Pierce is not quite as adept a perimeter defender as he used to be means that the Wizards may have to lean more heavily on Bradley Beal and second-year wing Otto Porter. However, they still have two very skilled interior rim protectors in Nene and Marcin Gortat.
The advantage of Pierce's slow transition inward as a defender is that it may allow the Wizards some additional lineup flexibility. Pierce showed that he was able to defend bigger players in the post at a more than respectable level.
Here, Pierce is able to use strength to hold up Amir Johnson long enough that he can reach around and knock the ball away.
On this play, Pierce is able to keep LeBron James away from deep post position and forces a contested fallaway jumper.
The fact that Pierce can hold his own in these situations means that he could play some backup power forward, staggering minutes for Nene and Gortat and letting the Wizards play a dangerous small-ball lineup on offense, arraying shooters around the penetration ability of Wall.
Having the ability to play those small, shooting-stacked lineups is a much less risky defensive proposition for the Wizards this season with Pierce in place of Ariza.
While Pierce offers some slightly different looks on offense and defense, from a skill and production standpoint, it appears that he could do a fine job filling in for Ariza. But there is one more concern we haven't touched on yet—durability.
Last season, at age 28, Ariza played 35.4 minutes per game. At age 36, Pierce played 28.0 for the Nets. Seven minutes may not seem like a big difference, but assuming Pierce can keep that mark up, that is still seven extra minutes a night that the Wizards will need to rely on Martell Webster (a much less proficient defender) or the unproven young pairing of Porter and Glen Rice Jr.
When he's on the court, everything seems to line up for Pierce to be a big asset. But when he's not, the rotation behind him could get shaky in a hurry. In the end, this question of durability may be the biggest question mark about Paul Pierce's fit in Washington.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats