Paul Pierce at Power Foward Has Proven to Be the Wizards' Secret Playoff Weapon
Wizards head coach Randy Wittman may come off as aloof at times regarding advanced metrics, or proper use of a dry-erase board, but a 7-1 road record in his first two playoff appearances insinuates that, at the very least, the man knows how to perform under pressure.
In the playoffs, he has unveiled seldom-used lineups from the regular season that have been instrumental in breaking down a porous Toronto Raptors defense to the tune of 105.0 points per game, up from their 98.5 point per game output of the regular season.
The Washington Wizards spent much of the second half of the season as a floundering team, incapable of finding enough offensive rhythm to fulfill the prophecy made by many NBA prognosticators before the season began that Washington was ready to take the next step from a team of potential to full blown Eastern Conference contenders.
At the All-Star break the Wizards stood with a record of 33-21 but finished up the season with a sub .500 record of 13-15 in the last 28 games of the regular season. During that span, the team went through much turmoil and finger-pointing as to why the offense seemed to be a bit disjointed. It got to the point where head coach Randy Wittman was refusing to answer questions about the offense in his post-game press conferences, which only drew more attention from local media coverage as to why the Wizards were struggling so mightily to put the ball in the hoop.
Well as it turns out, Wittman may have been playing the long-con the whole time.
The lineup change in question is the one that puts future Hall-of-Fame player Paul Pierce at the power forward -- or the “stretch four” position -- as opposed to his normal position of small forward.
Who knows if this was all a part of the Wizards master plan to maintain an element of surprise for their playoff opponents, but the fact remains that regardless of how we have arrived at this juncture, Pierce at the power forward works. And, boy, do the numbers ever back that up.
Pierce at the Four: By the Numbers
According to 82 games.com, Paul Pierce only spent four percent of his playing time playing the power forward position instead of his regular position of small forward. Wittman said that his lack of minutes at the four was due to a minutes restriction between 26 and 28 minutes per game. This makes little sense because Pierce could have easily had a more proportioned time split between the two forward spots and still only played around 26 minutes per game.
The numbers behind Pierce's splits between the two forward positions is staggering, even with the fact that we are working with an extremely small sample size. During the four percent of game action that Pierce did spend at the power forward position, his PER was 25.3 per 48 minutes, up from the 15.4 PER -- the league average is 15.0 -- that he accumulated playing small forward.
Some of the benefits of playing Pierce as a stretch four include better floor spacing for John Wall to run the offensive show and distribute the basketball, which led to 17 assists in Game 2.
During the regular season, Pierce's field goal attempts per 48 minutes rose from 16.5 per game at small forward to 19.2 per game as a power forward. This reason why this helps spread the floor is because Pierce is one of the Wizards' most respected three point shooters on the season. He led the team with 4.2 three point attempts per game and was able to convert on 38.9 percent of those attempts. Not only have the number of shots gone up but his Effective Field Goal Percentage has also seen a jolt from 52.3 percent at the three to 63.0 percent at the four.
Even Pierce's rebounding has seen an increase in his positional jump. At the small forward, Pierce averaged 7.1 rebounds per 48 minutes, and that number jumped to 12.6 when he was at power forward.
The numbers become so compelling that it gets even more difficult to excuse the lack of minutes for which seems to be a positive wrinkle in the Wizards offense. Pierce's net plus-minus when playing power forward was a plus-34, so there must have surely been a reason as to why Wittman refused to throw a life-raft to his team that had surely fallen over the deep end post All-Star break.
Pierce at the Four: By the Opponents' Numbers
"The Truth," listed at 6"9' and 235 pounds, was fully able to hold his own in limited minutes against opposing power forwards in the regular season, which he may be better suited for given his declining foot-speed and incapability of remaining in front of opposing small forwards. Pierce gave up a PER of 9.5 against opposing power forwards per 48 minutes which is down from the 14.0 PER given up to small forwards. The Effective Field Goal Percentage shrunk down from 51.7 percent when guarding small forwards to 35.9 percent when Pierce guarded power forwards.
I know this may begin to sound like a broken record, but the fact remains that nearly ever statistical category from Pierce has seen a marked increase in productivity when he moves over to play power forward. It is almost criminal to think that the Wizards spent the whole season withholding one of their most productive lineups.
It's not as if Wittman didn't know that Pierce could play the power forward position. Pierce had demonstrated in his lone season as a Brooklyn Net that he was very comfortable with playing power forward. He played 44 percent of his minutes in Brooklyn as a stretch four, and his net total points was a plus-129 versus the minus-68 from the 39 percent of on-court action he spent playing small forward.
"If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck."
At this stage in his career, Paul Pierce is clearly better suited to play power forward, and we shouldn't have needed a two-game scoring boom from the Wizards to tell us that.
Pierce at the Four: By the Playoff Numbers
Washington has unveiled their small-ball lineup as a viable threat that should put the rest of the NBA on notice. The lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Pierce, and Marcin Gortat has played 18 minutes in the postseason, outpacing the Raptors and accumulating a 127.5 Offensive Rating, while shooting 45.0 percent from the field and 44.0 percent from three-point range.
The Wizards' alternative small-ball lineup, which is the same as the one above but includes Nene at center instead of Gortat, has an Offensive Rating of 138.1, shooting 53 percent from the field and 50 percent from three in nine minutes of game action. That's 27 minutes of the 64 total minutes of Pierce's game action spent playing power forward in the playoffs, 42.1 percent, a dramatic uptick from the four percent of game action from the regular season.
Again, it is a small sample, but the Wizards' offense has seen an uptick in Offensive Rating of 106.3 (ranked fourth in the playoff field), up from the 101.8 that they slogged away during the regular season (ranked 19th).
Pierce may be slow of foot on defense at 37 years old, but he can still beat opposing big men off the dribble to create space for his crafty jump shot or even take the ball all the way to the basket. The Wizards offense seems to have opened up by inserting more shooting into the lineup and increasing the space for John Wall to operate.
Another element that benefits the Wiz from playing Pierce at the four is that it provides opportunity to run the pick-and-pop game instead of the more conventional pick-and-roll that opposing teams may be used to when scouting the Wizards. There were multiple times in the first two games during which Wall would use Pierce to set the screen and, because the Raptors' defense would focus on not letting John attack the basket at will, Pierce slipped the screen and headed directly to the three-point arc, creating a conundrum for the Raptors' defenders.
The Wizards have taken advantage of the element of surprise that seems to have put the Toronto Raptors on the ropes in preparation for the final knockout blow. Before the series began, the Wizards had only a 41.46 percent chance of advancing to the next round, according to our algorithms. Now, the Wizards are overwhelming favorites with an 80.54 percent chance of advancing to the conference semi-finals after stealing two very critical games in Toronto.
This surprise attack, has gone a long way in silencing the rumblings of discontent from the Raptors organization concerning comments Pierce made in a recent ESPN interview. The Raptors lack of an answer for the Wizards' chess move may be the "it" that Pierce was talking about all along.