For the last week, the Wizards were dead set on Paul Pierce's return to give it another run before retiring and becoming a first-ballot Hall of Fame player. But in the end, they made the same decision regarding him as they did a year ago with the player he'd replaced in Trevor Ariza.
Both are different players at different points of their career, but the reasoning for letting them go quietly to the Western Conference was the same: The Wizards refuse to compromise their position to make a run at Kevin Durant in 2016 free agency, CSNwashington.com has confirmed with multiple persons with knowledge of the situation.
Ariza was a free agent and wanted $10 million for the next four seasons. He took $8 million per to join the Houston Rockets where he doesn't pay state taxes which makes it essentially the same deal. The Wizards offered Pierce, who will be 38 when the season begins, two years with just the first guaranteed and the second a team option at the veteran mid-level exception of about $5.5 million. Instead, Pierce took a three-year deal from his hometown Los Angeles Clippers -- the first two guaranteed -- which when aggregated is higher salary.
The Wizards weren't locking themselves into such a deal and made the prudent decision to allow Pierce, who they'll always revere for what he did last season in bringing them to the cusp of the Eastern Conference finals, to walk. Pierce knew that with a team option in Year 2 of a new deal in Washington likely wouldn't have been picked up. The Wizards got word from Pierce at the same time the rest of the country, early Wednesday evening on the first day of free agency.
They huddled late at offices in Verizon Center with an eye on Plan B with a pair of trade exceptions, a mid-level exception and a bi-annual exception available to retool:
- A stretch 4: This remains their No. 1 priority. The problem here is there aren't many options on the open market.
- A combo guard is the next need on the list, with Rodney Stuckey among those on the short list. However, he'll require the mid-level which is the larger of the exceptions at roughly $5.5 million.
When Pierce didn't immediately tell the Wizards that he was returning, the writing was on the wall. There are no hard feelings towards him because they can't fault him for wanting to play at home with coaches (Doc Rivers and Sam Cassell) he already had close relationships with before coming to Washington.
Pierce wasn't going to do much to help the Wizards during the regular season anyway because he paces himself and has to nurse aches and paints. They won just two more games than the previous year without him (46) but Pierce's boldness and big-shot making in the postseason was magical.
They swept the Toronto Raptors behind Pierce's daggers from long range to steal home-court advantage. They took the lead after three games in a second-round series with the Atlanta Hawks because of his game-winning shot.
That, however, is where it ends. The responsibility for this now will rest on the shoulders of John Wall, the leader and $80 million designated max player, and his backcourt mate Bradley Beal who is in line for a hefty extension. Otto Porter is now on the clock at small forward, unless someone else is acquired this summer. Kelly Oubre, the Wizards' first-round draft pick last week, will be given time to learn but if he figures it out sooner rather than later that'll be all the better.
Just as it was during the February trade deadline -- and it will be for this upcoming one -- every move that the Wizards make or ignore is with Durant 2016 in mind. That means no long-term contracts. No marginal players making $7 million and up for multiple years to come will be accepted in transactions that might help them now but infringe on their cap situation for 2016-17. Unlike the Sacramento Kings, who change their vision at the owner's whim every week, the Wizards prefer a unified vision and will see it through whether or not a game-changing superstar is at the end of that rainbow.
If they can land the NBA's most lethal-scorer in Durant when he becomes a free agent from the Oklahoma City Thunder, would it matter that they whiffed on Ariza and Pierce? This is the long game and it has another year to play out before drawing any real conclusions. And going 1-for-3 in this situation would be a home run.