For veteran leaders with championship-winning experience, their options in free agency are just as much about finding a team with potential to win as going to a place where they will be heard. Signing with a squad that is not receptive to new voices is unproductive for those whose vocal presence is a strong asset.
The news of Paul Pierce signing with the Washington Wizards this summer was surprising on the surface. He had spent the first 15 years of his career with one team, the Boston Celtics, and was on to his second in as many seasons after a stint with the Brooklyn Nets. The Wizards weren’t exactly known as a free agent destination, but Pierce’s interest had been piqued by an organization on the rise.
Last season, Pierce saw the fifth-seeded Wizards knock off the fourth-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round and push the first-ranked Indiana Pacers to six games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. He had been down the bumpy road of youth movements before on the Celtics. This group, he felt, was different.
“They were intriguing,” Pierce said. “I had a chance to watch them last year, especially during their playoff run. I thought that was a team that could have beat Indiana. I thought that was a team that should have beat Indiana. I was watching all the pieces they had and I said, ‘Ooh, this team could be dangerous.’”
Pierce consulted with former teammate Sam Cassell, who had been an assistant coach for the Wizards for five seasons. He told Cassell he thought the Wizards had a shot to win. From the backcourt to their bigs to the bench players they acquired in the offseason, Pierce liked the makeup of the roster. He noticed their late-game struggles and felt he could help them improve in those situations. Relocating to Washington, D.C., he decided, would be a good move.
“I was like, ‘I think I could fit right in and help them get over the top,’” Pierce recounted. “Right now we’re playing as good as anybody.”
Pierce, a 2008 NBA champion and 10-time All-Star, came to his new team prepared to impart his knowledge. The Wizards, whose star player John Wall is only 24, were ready to listen. They recognized the value of what they could learn from Pierce and were quick to embrace it.
“He gives us that swagger we need, just to have that killer instinct and believe that we are better team out on the floor,” said Bradley Beal. “He’s a tremendous leader and mentor. He knows what it takes to win championships, so I think we’re all just following suit behind him and we’re all open to whenever he’s talking.”
There is leading by words and leading by actions. Pierce does both. His teammates have noted how he arrives early to practice so he can get in his rest for the remainder of the day. During games, he addresses the team for about seven minutes at halftime to keep them locked in and improve in the second half.
Pierce approaches each game with the same drive, a pattern that has resonated. The Wizards are off to a 15-6 start and hold one of the best records in the NBA. They were 9-12 at this point last season.
“It’s infectious. It bleeds throughout the locker room,” said Martell Webster. “(Our start is) a testament to his leadership and championship mentality. It’s great because it’s something that’s repetitive. He does it every game, so he keeps us focused and we’re very cognizant of our task at hand and winning.”
On the court, Pierce is carrying his weight as well. While he is no longer asked to shoulder the offense like he did on the Celtics, he continues to contribute across the board in the starting lineup. This season he is averaging 13.2 points, 5 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 27.2 minutes per game.
Pierce has also changed the long-term focus of the Wizards. Last season, they made the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Just being there isn’t good enough, Pierce emphasized. He has a bigger picture goal for the team that hasn’t reached the Eastern Conference Finals since 1979.
“Before in the past we were always focused on getting as deep as we could into the postseason and making it to the second round of the playoffs,” said Webster. “Now we focus on a championship, getting to the Finals, and that’s the mentality we have.”
This summer, Pierce thought he could be a fit for a team on the rise. Three months into the season, he knows he made the right decision.
“It’s been fun,” said Pierce. “We’ve got a hungry, young team that’s been receptive to my leadership in the locker room. They want success.”
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