67RIEFNS No. 31: Wizards’ small forwards

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The NBA is full of talent, personality and suspense. During the offseason, It’s easy to forget how wonderful the league can be. So, I’ve assembled 67 Reasons I’m Excited For Next Season (67RIEFNS). They’ll be presented in no particular order.

Contract-Year Trevor Ariza, by win shares, just posted the best season by a Washington small forward since Greg Ballard led the 1981-82 Bullets in scoring. Not coincidentally, that was the last team in franchise history – before last season – to win a second-round playoff game.

No matter what happened in free agency, the Wizards were going to have a hard time replacing Contract-Year Trevor Ariza. They were going to either keep Ariza on a multi-year deal that resulted in his production slipping to relatively pedestrian levels or lose him in free agency. Ultimately, the latter occurred, with Ariza headed to Houston.

Now, Washington – which has one of the NBA’s best backcourts (John Wall and Bradley Beal) and an identity-creating big-man combo (Nene and Marcin Gortat) – must find a new small forward to bridge the gap in an emerging lineup.

It might take a little while for everything to shake out, because injuries to Beal and Glen Rice Jr. will throw the Wizards’ rotation out of balance. But once they settle in, this is one of the most underrated and intriguing extended position battles in the league. It could take the greater part of the season for Washington to find the answer, but all three candidates bring something to the table.

Paul Pierce

Pierce is an NBA champion and Finals MVP. He’s made 10 All-Star games. He’s a well-respected leader.

He just hasn’t played small forward that effectively in quite a while.

Pierce struggled in the playoffs his last season with the Celtics, and he didn’t take off in Brooklyn until the Nets went small and moved him to power forward. In the 32 games between that 2013 playoff series and before Brooklyn’s transformation, Pierce averaged 13.9 points on 39.3 percent shooting with 3.1 turnovers per game. Sample-size caveats apply, but traditional scouting certainly indicates he’s better suited to be a small-ball four at this stage.

That’s not knocking Pierce’s great career, but he’s 37 now. The bust potential, especially if Washington keeps him at power forward, is higher than most are willing to acknowledge.

Otto Porter

Porter was one of my favorite players in the 2013 draft. He was extremely productive at Georgetown, and he was the third-youngest top-10 pick (behind Nerlens Noel and Alex Len).

But Porter’s rookie year never really got off the ground as he dealt with injury. That’s the optimistic view, at least. When Porter got on the court, he was dreadful.

He’s looked considerably better in summer and the preseason, reliably hitting jumpers. In time, I still think he can do more, but on this team, someone who spreads the floor by making spot-ups is a good fit.

Can that be Porter? Some players just need a little time to transition to the NBA.

Martell Webster

Webster splits the difference between the aging Pierce and young Porter.

It seems Webster has been been in the league nine years – and he has. But he’s just 27, turning pro the last year players could declare for the NBA draft straight from high school.

Webster had a career year in 2012-13, earning a big contract, before backsliding and losing his starting job to Ariza last season. He’s faced a litany of injuries, including a herniated disc in his back that has him sidelined now.

Once Webster gets healthy, as a player theoretically in his prime, he could earn the job over Pierce (maybe too old) and Porter (maybe too young). Webster could be that just-right third bear.

No matter who ultimately becomes the Wizards starting small forward, they have enough talent at the position that finding a good option is likely. None of these three are sure things, leaving the possibility Washington strikes out, but I’m betting on the Wizards identifying at least one quality option – even if these three interesting candidates battle for the job throughout the season.