Paul Pierce is everything a Washington Wizard hasn't been over the years. From LeDell Eackles to Nick Young, John "Hot Plate" Williams to Andray Blatche and Gheorghe Muresan to JaVale McGee, Washington's professional basketball franchise is known for its fringe characters. They were there to entertain us and lose, all while squandering real talent along the way.
Paul Pierce does entertain us, but not like them. Sure, he trolls rappers, heckles hockey players and invents catchphrases. But he also ices playoff opponents with unprovable clichés, then proves them anyway. He can seem humble to his supporters and arrogant to his enemies in the same breath. He can laugh about his own basketball mortality minutes after zinging a defeated opponent for doubting him. He can linger on the fringes in crunch time, only to appear when his team needs him most to secure a pivotal Game 3 victory.
He's a cocky winner changing a franchise once known for lovable losers. That's how strong his cult of personality is.
Pierce is the final piece of the Wizards' multi-season rebrand. Tired of being the butt of every NBA joke, the Wizards unceremoniously dumped nearly every young player not named John Wall or Bradley Beal in exchange for seasoned pros with something to prove. Their timeline never lined up with the team's core, but the Wizards didn't care. They needed to prove they could walk before they could run.
The fruits of their labor started to show last year. Wall blossomed, Beal grew, the veteran frontcourt of Nene and Marcin Gortat jelled and the Wizards overcame frustrating bouts of inconsistency to make the playoffs. They eventually lost in the second round, but not before crushing the respected Bulls and challenging the battle-tested Pacers. They were in the NBA conversation for reasons beyond another appearance on "Shaqtin a Fool."
Getting Pierce in the first place was validation for the Wizards' strategy. Pierce didn't initially want to go to Washington, but once Brooklyn cast him free and the Clippers used their only avenue to acquire him on Spencer Hawes, the situation warmed up to him. A deal came together just hours after the Wizards lost Trevor Ariza in free agency.
It happened so quickly because Pierce saw the value of the partnership. His Hall-of-Fame experience was desperately needed, but his on-court presence wasn't so essential that he had to wear out his 37-year-old body. He could pass all the wisdom he's gained over the years down to attentive pupils like Wall and Beal while they did the heavy lifting. He could be omnipresent while appearing invisible. It was everything he thought Brooklyn would be, but wasn't.
Perhaps that's why Pierce speaks of D.C. like it's where he belongs even though Boston will always be his real basketball home. He's shown his age at times this year. But when it matters most, he's occupied the role he craved since it became clear he could no longer be a No. 1 option. He can be a hoops whisperer in one breath and a floor spacer in another. He can be the instructor for most of the year, then step in to hit a big shot if he must. He can say his first-round opponent doesn't have "it" and his second-round foe lacks a dominant "aura," and have it inspire his teammates to play above their abilities.
The Wizards are better for the experience, even if it didn't always appears so during the regular season. Wall was playing like a playoff MVP before his injury. Beal has gobbled up more responsibility without losing his defensive intensity. Otto Porter has morphed into a gangly ball of energy after looking far too timid to make it as a rookie. Pierce has helped those three grow in ways that'll pay off many years down the road. Nobody else can simultaneously provide complimentary skills on the court and superstar lessons off it.
That's why the Wizards are miles ahead of where they were last year even though they've won the same number of playoff games. We're just one day away from the anniversary of when Washington's 2014 season essentially ended. In that Game 4, the Wizards blew a 19-point lead to the Pacers to fall behind 3-1 in the series. The ugly collapse culminated in Wall passing up the most wide open of wide-open threes with a minute left and the Pacers up three. He set up Beal for a decent look that missed, but it was a timid move Pierce never would have accepted.
On Saturday, the Wizards were on the verge of blowing a 20-point lead on the same floor. Paul Pierce, both in flesh and attitude, was the reason the crisis was averted. That's why the Wizards brought him here.