The Washington Wizards didn’t make a huge splash during the 2014 offseason, but a plethora of savvy moves, cheap deals and an overall boost to roster depth has ensured D.C. can contend in the wide-open Eastern Conference.
Just about every team in the east has reason to believe it can compete with its peers.
Some teams got worse, others got better. The Wizards, meanwhile, quietly loaded up with a variety of pieces that make them a potent threat.
Adding ‘The Truth’
Losing 3-and-D swingman Trevor Ariza to the Houston Rockets on a four-year, $32 million deal could have dealt a massive blow to the Wizards’ 2014-15 product. The former UCLA Bruin experienced the best season of his professional career by draining 40.7 percent of his treys while playing lockdown defense.
Instead of panicking, though, the Wizards got one of the biggest steals in free agency. Future Hall of Famer and former NBA champion Paul Pierce agreed to join up with the nation’s capital on a two-year, $10.8 million deal.
Considering that “The Truth” was reportedly seeking a two-year contract in the $9-10 million per year range, according to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, Washington lucked out by getting a proven veteran at a lower price tag.
Pierce’s decision to leave the Brooklyn Nets in favor of signing in Washington was influenced by Wizards' assistant coach Sam Cassell.
As The Washington Post’s Michael Lee wrote, "Immediately after coaching the Wizards to a 90-74 summer league victory, Cassell got on the phone with his former teammate in Boston and convinced Pierce of the talent on Washington’s roster, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.”
Sometimes organizations just need certain dark-horse factors to fall into place.
Pierce may not be an upgrade when compared directly with Ariza. The latter is younger, drained a higher percentage of three-pointers and can handle more minutes. Still, adding Pierce as a wise teacher and a complementary cog in the starting rotation can’t be overlooked.
Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver wrote the following of the acquisition:
Not known as a popular destination for free agents, Washington likely feels thrilled that they were able to get a player of Pierce’s stature, even if he’s in decline, without breaking the bank. That they were able to do it while plugging their biggest roster hole makes it that much sweeter.
It's worth noting that Pierce is more than capable of sliding down to play the 4 spot as well. When Brook Lopez was sidelined with injury, first-year head coach Jason Kidd experimented by putting Pierce at power forward—a move that helped trigger Brooklyn’s turnaround.
As a spot-up shooter beside the dribble-drives of John Wall, Pierce will be a versatile weapon within Washington’s offense.
Also, a career total of 148 playoff games doesn't hurt.
Improvement of Bench
During the 2013-14 campaign, Washington’s second unit scored just 26.1 points per game, which ranked it 29th in the league, according to NBA.com.
Only the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench (24.7 points per contest) scored fewer points on average during the regular season.
The lack of depth only got more pronounced during postseason play. Washington’s bench scored 15.1 points per game, dished out 2.3 assists on average and shot a dreadful 18.2 percent from long distance. The Wiz were dead last among playoff teams in all three of those categories, per NBA.com.
Head coach Randy Wittman needed depth to rest his starting five. The front office has delivered so far this summer—particularly in the frontcourt.
Keeping freshly signed center Marcin Gortat and injury-prone power forward Nene healthy during an 82-game grind has clearly become a huge priority.
As if that wasn’t obvious enough, the Wizards also added DeJuan Blair via sign-and-trade with the Dallas Mavericks. According to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, Washington will send the rights to 2009 second-round pick Emir Preldzic to Dallas as compensation.
“DeJuan gives us a tough inside presence who can score and rebound at both frontcourt positions,” team president Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement, per Stein. “His addition makes our bench even deeper and will allow us to be flexible with our lineups.”
Blair’s flexibility is a key selling point, but the best part for the Wizards is the price tag.
As Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reports, the big man’s deal with Washington is for $6 million over three years. That’s an absolute bargain.
|DeJuan Blair vs. Trevor Booker (2013-14 Stats)|
Both guys bring essentially the exact same skill set to the table (with Blair favored in a variety of advanced stats). Adding the 25-year-old Pittsburgh product for a fraction of the price Booker received necessitates a hat-tip to Washington’s management team.
With so much depth on the interior—Blair, Humphries and Gooden—Wittman could conceivably opt to rest Nene altogether during back-to-back scenarios. The Wizards are clearly focused in on a playoff run now, and keeping him healthy for that time of year is hugely important. There’s certainly no harm in giving the Brazilian big man the Dwyane Wade treatment by monitoring his minutes.
None of the additions is a true center, but Blair and Humphries aren’t afraid to bang bodies down low and crash the glass.
Gortat and Nene are the backbone of Wittman’s starting unit. Now they’ll have the opportunity to stay fresh with viable guys backing them up.
Perhaps the most impressive part about Washington’s Eastern Conference Semifinals run was that Wall and Bradley Beal were 23 and 20 years old, respectively.
Wall clearly didn’t play to the best of his abilities during his first postseason appearance. He shot just 36.6 percent from the field and a woeful 21.9 percent from three-point range.
Even so, Washington ousted the Bulls in Round 1 and took two games from the Pacers in the Conference Semis.
The Kentucky product is poised to improve his game and add consistency, which is something Pierce noted in the past.
“They’re good,” the veteran forward said of the Wizards when he was still a member of the Nets, per Lee. “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.”
Beal, Wall’s backcourt partner, turned 21 years old in June. He buried 40.2 percent of his three-point looks as an NBA sophomore and will only get better with experience under his belt—a scary thought for the rest of the Eastern Conference.
The play of Wall and Beal will ultimately decide Washington’s fate. If they continue to improve and up their game during postseason action, they have enough pieces around them to make a deep run.
Washington’s front office made underrated moves this summer. If anything, it may still need another guard to provide depth behind the young backcourt.
Nevertheless, Pierce’s presence to mentor Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr., as well as acquisitions of big bodies to spell Gortat and Nene, will keep the Wiz competitive. In the Eastern Conference, that's all fans can really ask for.