Breakdown: How Paul Pierce Can Replace Trevor Ariza For The Washington Wizards


July 12th, 2014. The league was abuzz with free agency news that shook the foundation and hierarchy of the Eastern Conference. But while the rest of the NBA was concerning themselves with the prodigal son, LeBron James, returning home to play for his Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards fans were following a different press release. Because just one day after James made his historic announcement via a nicely-penned letter, Paul Pierce had agreed in principle to come to Washington, and in his words, join forces with John Wall and Barack Obama.

Enough has been written about the Wizards franchise and their recovery from irrelevance by a deep playoff run last year. But for the first time since Gilbert Arenas signed a 6 year deal in 2004, a major free agent chose this team and this city over other prospective (and possibly more attractive) suitors. The circumstances are obviously not the same. Paul Pierce is entering his 17th season in the NBA and at the ripe age of 36, and clearly will be spending this season as the leader in the clubhouse more often than on the court. But his choice still marks a potential shift in the philosophy regarding those bumbling, stumbling Wizards. And yet, as we all continue to familiarize ourselves with a Hall of Famer donning the #34 (instead of a Hall of Famer Not-Top 10 participant in Javale McGee, who last wore that jersey), the question shifts from one about legacy and perception, to one about the reason he signed in the first place; basketball. How will Paul Pierce mesh with this group, and more importantly, how will he replace one of the most valuable two-way players on the team last year in Trevor Ariza?

Given Ariza’s impact on both sides of the ball, it’s fair to evaluate how Pierce will perform in those situations as well. Offensively, Ariza thrived in the Wizards slash-and-kick offense, often finding the corner of the court to make a living from beyond the arc. He led the league in that department, and John Wall was the assister on 3 of the top 6 combinations of corner 3s last year, per

Between the left and right corner, he took 180 attempts, making an incredible 81 of them, good for a shade over 45%. In contrast, shows that Pierce only took 22 of such attempts, making 12 of them but instead spending his time taking above the break 3s and relishing in the small-ball power forward role. Given how much time Wall spends at the top of the key, it’ll be critical for Paul Pierce to learn how to slide down the arc and play on the opposite side of Bradley Beal to benefit on the Wizards offensive schemes. Pierce actually had a higher True Shooting % (59.5 compared to 59.0) than Ariza last year, and that number should only go up by receiving cleaner looks from Wall than he got with Shaun Livingston and The Artist Formerly Known as Deron Williams.

In the moments that Pierce does man the 4 spot to give the team a smaller, more athletic look, he should find room in the middle of the court. John Wall and Bradley Beal love the midrange shot more than Andre Drummond loves dunking, but improved efficiency from beyond the arc for both players and an increased emphasis on analytics (maybe they’ll finally put their expensive SportVU cameras to use?) could give Pierce some room to operate.

We know how much he loves that step back jumper, but he can also use his herky-jerk body movements to get to the rim against slower big men. Without both Nene and Marcin Gortat on the floor, the paint will be less crowded for Paul Pierce and other perimeter players to attack. Ariza struggled when he had to put the ball on the floor, but Pierce should be more comfortable in that role. Thankfully, that will also lead to better late-game action when teams have bottled Wall and Beal up. Only Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard shot a better field goal percentage in ‘clutch’ moments last season, and Pierce has a long history of making big shots in big moments. Without seeing evidence quite yet, I think it’s still fair to expect that appalling home record defending the Verizon Center take an uptick next year.

Defensively is where the Wizards will face the biggest drop off in the move to Paul Pierce. After constructing back-to-back top 10 defenses, Coach Randy Wittman will have to retool the scheme without his defensive ace. Ariza was unleashed on the best perimeter player, and spent the playoffs chasing everyone from Paul George to D.J. Augustin. He has great feet, but also used his quick, long arms to wreak havoc in the passing lanes and begin a deadly fastbreak that turned into quick points for Washington. Per, his 3.7 Defensive Win Shares were good for 3rd on the team, and 1.4 more than Pierce had in Brooklyn. According to, the Wizards gave up almost 4 points more per 100 possessions when Ariza hit the bench and were over 2% worse in rebounding rate.

The main concern for the Wizards coaching staff should be if Paul Pierce has the quickness left to stay in front of younger, faster wingmen. Since he played so much power forward for the Nets, it may be a tougher transition to move back to his natural position of small forward given that Nene and Gortat are staples in the front court. Pierce, to his credit, has always been a wily defender, and often uses his wide frame to beat his man to the spot, even if his lateral movement won’t get him there otherwise.

The leadership, intangibles, and championship pedigree are obvious advantages of adding a legend like Paul Pierce to the roster. His effect on players like Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, and Glen Rice Jr. are already evident. But between the lines, it’ll be critical to see if the platoon of Pierce and Porter can make up for what Ariza provided this team.

Best case scenario is that Pierce holds down the fort long enough to pass the torch to Porter, while moonlighting as a 4th quarter savant and a locker room stalwart. Given what we saw from the young guns in summer league and what we’ve seen so far in training camp, that vision could be more reality than of dreams. Turns out July 12th was a great day after all.