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Wizards' Defense Thrives With Pierce, Despite Losing Ariza

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Paul Pierce and tremendous team defense have allowed Washington to be one of the top units in the league, despite losing their top defender from last season.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The minute I heard that Trevor Ariza was a part of a sign-and-trade that would have him leaving Washington and heading to the Houston Rockets, there were two things that went through my head:

1. "At least the Wiz don't have to overpay to keep him now."

2. "Who is going to be the primary defender?"

The funny part is, I actually said both of those things out-loud to my roommate when that news came across.

Last season, when Ariza was likely the fourth most important player on a Wizards team that won a playoff series and very well could have beaten the Indiana Pacers in another.

About three weeks into this season, I no longer had any doubts about Washington letting him go.

Instead, they ended up signing Paul Pierce, who is generally the team's No. 1 perimeter defender and has been just as effective on defense as Ariza was last season.

Prior to Friday's games, the Wizards were tied for ninth in scoring defense and points allowed per possession and tied for fourth in opponent field goal percentage.

A lot of that has to do with Pierce being such a solid defender, but the Wizards team defense as a whole deserves some credit.

But first, The Truth.

The lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Nene and Marcin Gortat gives up an effective field-goal percentage of 50.6. That same lineup, but with Pierce in instead of Porter, allows an eFG of 48.9, according toBasketball-Reference.com.

That Pierce lineup allows just 0.89 points per possession, according to the website 82games.com. Put Porter in there, and the PPP goes up to 1.09.

Looking at some defensive metrics, Pierce is actually on pace to be a better individual defender than Ariza was last season.

In 44 games this year, Pierce is holding opponents to 0.651 points per isolation possession that he defends, per Synergy Sports, good for fifth in the league. (Coincidentally enough, Ariza is currently second in the league in that category.)

Opponents going up against Pierce in isolation situations are shooting just 29.8 percent. Not bad for a 37-year-old.

Ariza finished last season allowing 0.9 points per isolation possession, and 42 percent shooting on those possessions.

Pierce also has some of the intangibles that Ariza doesn't. Just by watching the games, it's clear that Pierce is the veteran leader on defense.

He's constantly barking out orders to his teammates and directing traffic, which is something that Ariza rarely did last season.

Pierce also has flexibility that Ariza didn't. At a few points this season, Pierce slid over to the power forward position and he can protect the rim when need-be. He's obviously not as speedy as he once was, but his length and defensive IQ make him an ideal defender.

Eventually in the playoffs, Pierce is going to have to cover the likes of LeBron James, Jimmy Butler and Kyle Korver, and he'll be up to the task.

Ariza's defensive tenure in Washington was highlighted, in my opinion, by this possession at the end of a game last January when he completely shut down Stephen Curry, the best shooter in the game, and allowed the Wizards to hold on to a three-point lead.

(Vine via Mike Prada)

Pierce hasn't been asked to take those one-on-one assignments all that often, as the opportunity hasn't presented itself much, but I believe he'd hold up in a similar situation.

But it's also important to realize that Pierce isn't the only reason the defense has been effective this season. As a unit, the defense does well with swarming to the ball and forcing turnovers, eventually leading to fastbreak scores for Wall or Beal.

Synergy has the Wizards ranked as the fourth best defense against spot-up shooters and in transition, and is the best team at locking down opponents who are playing off screens. Last year, the Wizards ranked sixth, 12th and 21st in those categories, respectively.

In this play against the Jazz back in December, Beal, Wall and Gortat all do an excellent job of swarming on Trey Burke at the exact same time, which eventually forces him to give up an easy turnover and easy fastbreak for the Wizards.

The same thing happened here, where Kris Humphries, Gortat and Wall all swarmed in on Aaron Brooks, forcing him to take a shot difficult shot under the hoop, and it led to a Humphries block.

(Vines via Hoop District)

Washington has seven players who have at least one defensive win share so far this season (Wall, Gortat, Beal, Pierce, Nene, Humphries and Rasual Butler) and three guys (Humphries, Nene and Gortat) with a defensive rating of 101 or less, per Basketball-Reference.

For comparison's sake, the Atlanta Hawks, who are largely considered to have the best defensive in the East, if not the whole league, have seven guys as well with at least one defensive win share and just one starter (Paul Millsap) with a defensive rating of 101 or less.

Sure, there have to be a number of tweaks on offense before I'd feel comfortable saying the Wizards should be the favorite to come out of the East, but even without Ariza, the defense shows that there is much to be excited about.