Washington's wing rotation has certainly changed. After watching Trevor Ariza leave town after a career season and Martell Webster succumb to yet another back injury, the Wizards are counting on the newly-acquired Paul Pierce and second year lottery pick Otto Porter replace or even improve upon Ariza's production.
Going into the season, Pierce looks like a capable replacement for Ariza, Webster will fill in as the back up once he's recovered from his injury and Porter appears to have improved. However, if Washington counts on Pierce to play as many minutes as Ariza, the team will likely struggle.
Pierce enters the season at 37 years old, an age at which the overwhelming majority of wings have been retired for five years or more. An excellent shooter and ball handler who never relied on overwhelming athleticism, Pierce has aged as gracefully as possible, yet his decline has been noticeable. Last season Pierce posted career lows in minutes, points per game and PER while struggling defensively against wings. Try as he might, The Truth can't keep up with guys who are 15 years younger than him as consistently as as a few years ago. He's also at an age at which even the most durable players start coming down with injuries on a regular basis.
Pierce's last team, the Brooklyn Nets, alleviated this problem by moving him up from small forward to power forward. A career wing, Pierce was forced to slide up due to an injury to Brook Lopez, which also caused Brooklyn to move Kevin Garnett from power forward to center. After one of the most disappointing starts in recent NBA history, the Nets almost immediately turned things around, eventually making the playoffs on the strength of their superior offensive spacing and mobile defense. Spacing that was in no small part a result of putting one of the best three-point shooters in the league at power forward.
Washington's need for a stretch 4 is no secret. Drew Gooden's shot comes and goes, Kris Humphries' jumper is automatic only out to 18-20 feet and DeJuan Blair and Kevin Seraphin are middling marksmen. Putting Pierce at power forward could boost Washington's pick and roll attack to elite levels this year, with John Wall and Marcin Gortat running it over and over with the threat of a three-pointer from Pierce, Bradley Beal, Martell Webster or Otto Porter drawing defenders away from the paint.
Pierce upped his production when he played power forward, taking advantage of more catch and shoot opportunities and his ability to take less mobile power forwards off the dribble. While he struggled a bit in one on one matchups, he more than made up for it with superior team defense. The results are telling: Brooklyn beat opponents by 5.7 points per 48 minutes with Pierce at power forward and lost by 3.3 per 48 when he played small forward.
Paul Pierce, PER and Team Rating, by position, 2014 Season
Data courtesy of 82games.com
But while it's great in principle to play Pierce at the four, it's far from a sure thing that Randy Wittman will even have the opportunity to do it on a regular basis. Washington has plenty of power forwards, with Humphries, Blair and Nene all capable of playing major minutes. Meanwhile, Pierce, the injured Webster, Porter and Rasual Butler are the only natural small forwards on the roster. Butler is roster filler and Webster's health is a question mark.
That leaves Porter, owner of the worst rookie season by a No. 3 pick of all time (Adam Morrison was bad too, but at least he was able to get off the bench), as the primary back up to Pierce.
Porter was awful as a rookie. However, he was good in college, the summer league and what we've seen of him during the preseason. He also started his season late due to a hip injury and has a skill-set that relies on smart play by his teammates, something that doesn't lend itself well to the chaotic nature of summer league. He's the type of player who makes his teammates better and improves himself when paired with other high IQ, fundamentally sound players. In other words, he's more likely to reach his full potential playing with starters than with backups.
The scary thing is that everything that can be said about Porter's rookie year could also be said about Jan Vesely's. Like Vesely, Porter is a role player drafted in the lottery who struggled initially. Unlike Vesely, though, Porter has a longer track record of competent basketball and is a good enough shooter that he can play next to almost anyone. Stranger things have happened than a player like him turning things around.
There just aren't too many precedents. Of the 464 rookies who have played more than 300 minutes over the last 10 years, Porter ranks 453 in PER. The majority of the players who performed similarly as rookies wound up being scrubs. Those who didn't, such as Jordan Farmar and Thabo Sefolosha, were all starters on bad teams, deep bench guys on good ones, or the weak link in the starting lineup of a contender.
Whether Porter develops enough to play 25 minutes a night, giving Wittman the ability to move Pierce to power forward for stretches, could make or break Washington's season. Stretch fours are all the rage these days, especially when paired with a strong primary scorer who can take advantage of the space around the basket they create. But Porter needs to step his game up for the Wizards to take things to the next level.