WASHINGTON -- Two years ago, you wouldn't dare to dream up a scenario in which Paul Pierce chose to sign with the Washington Wizards in free agency. Despite overhauling an entire roster, the Wizards hadn't rid themselves of a losing culture. Under a young point guard still learning the game and an unproven head coach with a shoddy track-record, the cards were stacked against them.
"The culture wasn't good," Pierce admitted to reporters on Monday when asked if he'd ever consider signing here two years ago. "It was a tough environment to win and to move forward as a franchise. Over the last couple of years, they've changed all of that."
Last season's postseason run all but ensured that the Wizards had arrived, and you could feel it in the air Monday during media day. It was an entirely new feeling surrounding the returning players, almost like a weight was lifted off their shoulders. They had accomplished what they set out to do this time last year and their shiny new offseason addition had only sparked their drive for more.
"I've never been in a situation to have that championship mentality," John Wall remarked. "We just had the mentality of making the playoffs for the first time."
But while there's a sense of legitimacy now, it was only 10 months ago that they took their cues from Trevor Ariza, who spoke up, orchestrated a players-only meeting and demanded accountability. He wasn't going to let that season slip away not even a month into the season. That simple act went to define his brief tenure in Washington.
When the Wizards acquired him from New Orleans three years ago, there were doubts that he'd ever fit in. He was a poor shooter brought into a situation bereft of legitimate floor spacers, save for a rookie Bradley Beal who still needed time adjusting to the NBA three-point arc. He got tagged as an overzealous defender, one that gambled for too many steals and didn't do enough in isolation to justify the big contract he signed in 2009. Now, he's a big man to replace as the Wizards' best marksmen and defender last year, even if it comes down to plugging in a 25,000 point scorer and future Hall of Famer in his place. But such is the nature of the business.
"Everybody can guard, so it's just up to us to go out there and get it done," Bradley Beal said. "It's not just one guy who's going to shut down one person."
It isn't that simple, of course. Ariza was their ultimate utility player in the starting lineup, one with enough offensively ability to maintain the right floor spacing, but in the type of subsidiary role that allowed him to exhaust most of his energy on defense. It's unclear whether this year's starting lineup has that same balance.
Which may be why Marcin Gortat was speculating about the answer to their problems lying on their bench.
"Particularly a guy I love is Glen Rice Jr. He's so crafty, he's so tough, and so physical. He can really create a lot of problems for different teams, he can lockdown and play defense."
Gortat may have a point. Rice has a golden opportunity to supplant Martell Webster as the team's primary backup two for good, even if it seems outlandish on the surface. Webster is only a year removed from his breakout season when he finished among the leagues best three-point shooters, but Rice can potentially bring the type of defensive tenacity that Webster has never displayed in his career. And the Wizards will give him his shot while his counterpart is sidelined for the foreseeable future after undergoing a third back surgery earlier this offseason.
All of this is contingent upon a great deal of improvement on his part. Rice is a physical defender who can press 94 feet from the basket. He shows a good understanding of how to position himself and he's a lot like Ariza in that he uses his body well to bump players off their spots.
This is how Ariza defended in isolation. Watch how Rice slides his feet, then absorbs the contact once Lance Stephenson picks up his dribble and tries to barrel his way to the hoop. He gets him off balance and forces the shot up farther away from the basket than Stephenson would have liked.
More than anyone else, this is what Rice can bring to the table this year. He has a tendency to fall for head-fakes as he closes out on shooters and often has trouble going over or under screens, but those can be cleaned up with more playing time, which he'll likely get.
In the meantime, Pierce and Otto Porter -- who is as confident as ever -- will hold down the fort. There may not be an Ariza anymore to defend at a high-level, but for the first time since their rebuilding project went underway, the Wizards are banking on some of their young guys to prove themselves.