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Can the Washington Wizards’ Starters Still Dominate?

Mar 15, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Brooklyn Nets forward Paul Pierce (34) shoots the ball over Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) in the third quarter at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 101-94. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

One of last season’s surprise teams, the Washington Wizards, were expected to keep together their core starters. Aging or not, most initially thought they’d do everything possible this summer to retain key free agents Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza. They first decided to keep the 30-year-old Gortat with a five-year $60 million deal. But after the LeBron James sweepstakes finally ended, a surprising swap occurred. Washington didn’t go hog-wild for Ariza, who signed his second career $30 million-plus free agent deal with the Houston Rockets. In return, they replaced him with the eight-years-older Paul Pierce on the mid-level exception. The two-year deal with a second-year player option on top is one of the most intriguing this offseason.

It’s not that Pierce was bad at all last season; he was the one of the best overall players on one of the league’s hottest teams after the New Year. His success actually flew under the radar somewhat, oddly enough. It’s just that Ariza had gelled so perfectly as a lights-out shooter the last two seasons in D.C. Will he actually continue that shooting elsewhere? Will Washington suffer without him?

Some might forget, but the Wizards actually were 24-25 when John Wall played during their mostly dreadful 2012-13 season. Fully healthy, the starting unit was the key to the team’s 44-38 success last year. With a depleted bench, the starters carried a heavy weight. Any unit involving Gortat-Ariza-Wall straight-up demolished opponents.

What’s next for Randy Wittman’s squad now? The key is likely in how the team will utilize the starting combination of Pierce and the up-and-coming Bradley Beal. As one can see from last year’s shooting charts, via Austin Clemens, Ariza and Beal were perfect offensive complements. Ariza shot over 50% of his shots from three and Beal took over the midrange game. The spacing was ideal for Wall and others.

beal and ariza 2013-14

Pierce was an effective shooter too in his own crafty ways. It’s not like he’s ever been a bad three-point shooter; he has shot 37.0% on 4.4 attempts per 36 minutes for his career. But he found a nice little niche in the left corner. He attempted over 40% of his shots from three – a new career-high mark.

Will Pierce take over the Ariza role wholly? Or will there be a swap, with Beal spotting up for more threes and Pierce taking over more midrange responsibilities? Ideally both will occur.washington-synergy-stats-2

As one can see from the Synergy data to the right, Pierce actually spotted up more frequently than Ariza last season. I was surprised too. Meanwhile, Beal had a very high proportion of pick-and-roll ball-handling responsibilities. Beal and Ariza were both fantastic in transition. Beal’s efficiency was much lower overall compared to the other two, yet he wasn’t that far back in spot-up opportunities. Washington’s offense could improve from mix-matched responsibilities.

Beal’s shot is pure magic and his penchant for mid-range shots – along with John Wall’s known love – likely hampered the team last season. If he can spot up a bit more often? That could make this team just as difficult to defend. Adding another capable ballhandler in Pierce? That can make their late-game offense even more dangerous and perhaps boost up the bench.

It’s helpful to note the Wizards did upgrade their bench bigs. They agreed to sign-and-trade deals for forwards DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries while losing Trevor Booker and former prospect Jan Vesely. They will also be counting on improvements into actual rotation roles for sophomores Glen Rice Jr. (Summer League MVP) and Otto Porter (only 319 minutes last season). But how the team utilizes Pierce and Beal is the main story for their immediate growth in 2014-15.

Jacob Rosen

I'm just a kid from Akron, Ohio. You can find my writings at WaitingForNextYear and SportsAnalyticsBlog. I also consult for the Akron RubberDucks minor league baseball team. I'm starting at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center MBA program in September. Follow me on Twitter at @WFNYJacob.