BOSTON — LeBron James may have made the biggest decision of the NBA offseason, but Paul Pierce’s new destination may rank as the biggest surprise of NBA free agency thus far.
Just when the Celtics fanbase was starting to get used to seeing Pierce wearing a black and white Brooklyn jersey, the veteran small forward elected to find a new home down the East Coast, agreeing to terms on a two-year deal with an emerging Wizards team.
Pierce’s departure from Brooklyn appears fairly bizarre on the surface. Most people I talked to around the league never expected Pierce to abandon his longtime teammate Kevin Garnett in New York after Pierce helped convince him to waive his no-trade clause and join him in Brooklyn last summer.
In this instance though, it appears the former Celtic didn’t have a choice but to leave Garnett in Brooklyn. According to Michael Scotto of SheridanHoops.com, the Nets didn’t even opt to make Pierce a contract offer this summer, choosing instead to go young and cheap to help reduce a staggering luxury tax bill.
This logic seems questionable at best, since $5.5 million per year for Pierce is not exactly breaking the bank, especially when the Nets mortgaged three first-round draft picks to acquire him and Garnett last summer in a blockbuster deal. Contending no longer appears to be the No. 1 priority for Nets’ owner Mikhail Prokhorov with the decision to pass on Pierce. If it had been, the veteran would be back in Brooklyn next year, since the Nets have no clear way to replace him.
With the Nets electing to go cheap, Pierce had to make a decision about what mattered to him over the next couple of years. He could have focused on finding a team that would simply give him the best chance to win another ring now and become a hired gun off the bench like Ray Allen became in Miami for a low salary.
After a productive last season in Brooklyn, Pierce likely didn’t want to settle for a minimal bench role though. He still thinks of himself as a starter in this league and his play to help the Nets bounce back from a 10-19 start last year backs up that stance.
So after some reported coaxing from former teammates and Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell , Pierce elected to make the jump to DC and it might give him the best of both worlds he was looking for.
In a revamped Eastern Conference, the Wizards can rightfully stake their claim as being one of the top three or four teams of the bunch. They have two bright young stars in John Wall and Bradley Beal, as well as a formidable frontcourt with Nene and Marcin Gortat. With Pierce added to that group, that’s a team that can hold their own against anyone in the conference.
Conveniently for Pierce, a spot at the small forward position in the starting five opened up for Washington after Trevor Ariza agreed to terms with Houston over the weekend. The opportunity for big-time minutes with a young competitive team surely appealed to Pierce, knowing he would see regular playing time as a starter but wouldn’t have to carry too much of a scoring onus.
With other destinations like a reunion with Doc Rivers in L.A. ruled out (the Clippers used their mid-level exception on Spencer Hawes) Pierce decided on an unlikely new home in Washington. With a player option after year one of the deal, the former Celtic captain has built in plenty of flexibility for himself as well.
It probably wasn’t what Pierce was planning on at the start of the offseason, but the Wizards could ultimately prove to be a great fit for the future Hall of Famer.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.
MORE SPORTS FROM CBS BOSTON