By Steve Lichtenstein
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I purchased tickets for my two sons to Saturday’s Nets game at Barclays Center versus the Wizards. Ernie Grunfeld, Washington’s president, was sitting in front of them.
Sam, my 17-year-old son, wanted to talk to Grunfeld but was not sure how to approach him. I offered him a surefire icebreaker: “Hello, Mr. Grunfeld. Can we get Paul Pierce back? We made a BIG mistake.”
At first glance, the 37-year-old forward had minimal impact over the Wizards’ 99-90 victory that earned Washington a split in its rare home-and-home series with Brooklyn. The Nets won the first game, 102-80, on Friday in Washington.
The box score from Saturday showed that Pierce produced just seven points on 2-for-9 shooting and turned the ball over four times in 26 minutes.
However, if you ask any Wizard, the addition of Pierce this season is a key reason why they have moved into the upper echelon in the Eastern Conference. A year after posting identical 44-38 records (the Wizards earned the fifth seed over the Nets by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker), Washington has left Brooklyn in the dust in 2014-15.
While the Wizards’ 28-13 record is the conference’s second best, the Nets are tumbling towards Lottery Land at 17-24. Brooklyn may own the eighth and final playoff seed at the season’s halfway point thanks to a god-awful set of teams beneath them, but they have lost seven of their last eight games and are just one game ahead of Charlotte and Detroit.
You can trace the underlying root of their plunge directly to Billy King’s ill-advised decision not to offer Pierce a contract this past offseason when the future Hall of Famer became a free agent.
I was adamant over the summer that the Nets general manager’s most pressing concern was to re-sign Pierce. King was powerless to stop the versatile Shaun Livingston from moving on to greener pastures in Golden State due to the league’s salary-cap restraints. Also, while Andray Blatche could have been brought back, his act had gone so stale that the only team that coveted the offensively gifted big man was located halfway around the world in China.
But Pierce … all King had to do was exceed the Wizards’ two-year, $10.8 million offer (with year two a player option).
I’ve heard all the excuses and I’m sorry — I don’t buy any of them.
There was the money — with Brooklyn so far over both the salary cap and luxury-tax thresholds, the additional cash expenditure to owner Mikhail Prokhorov would have exceeded $20 million.
Except that not only was billionaire Prokhorov coming off a 2013-14 season in which he spent over $90 million in luxury taxes alone, but jettisoning Pierce did nothing to alleviate the tax problem this season. The Nets still have the highest payroll in the league and can count on owing luxury taxes at the repeater rates until they rid themselves of some of their max-contract earners (Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez).
Then there were King’s and Prokhorov’s lame attempts to defend the decision on basketball terms. You know, the one about the Nets needing to get “younger and more athletic.”
This after King sent three (three!!!) future first-round draft picks as well as the right to swap two additional first-rounders in the odd years to Boston so he could acquire Pierce and 20-minute-per-night Kevin Garnett (though KG was actually extended to 27 minutes on Saturday because the Nets have three full days off before starting a three-game West Coast swing in Sacramento).
Not exactly the way to fill the roster with good, young players.
The most athletic young player the Nets have in their rotation is 6-foot-11 center Mason Plumlee. They are routinely getting abused by all the high-scoring wings in the league. The man who King bet on to replace Pierce — Euro rookie Bojan Bogdanovich — keeps getting sent out on the court by Nets coach Lionel Hollins with the laughable expectation that he can contain guys like James Harden and Dwyane Wade.
Or Bradley Beal, the Wizards’ sublime shooting guard who bounced back from a foul-plagued game in Washington to score 17 points — which could have been a lot more if he didn’t uncharacteristically misfire on a few three-pointers where he was left unattended by either Bogdanovich or reserve Alan Anderson.
Meanwhile, Pierce was the Wizards’ best defender on Johnson, who in the two games combined scored 21 points on 8-for-28 shooting from the field.
Pierce may not move like he used to, but he brings toughness and basketball intelligence to every game he plays. Remember how he sacrificed last season by moving to an undersized power forward role so then-coach Jason Kidd could implement his new small-ball identity?
And who made one of the biggest plays in the franchise’s (limited) playoff history by blocking Toronto’s Kyle Lowry at the buzzer of the do-or-die Game 7 in the first round of last season’s playoffs to prevent an epochal Nets collapse?
That would be Pierce, the man King let go for nothing in what should have been a fireable offense.
Forget the stats for a moment, though the Nets would kill to boast someone who can knock down 38.7 percent of their three-point attempts (including 48.3 percent from the corner, 10 percentage points better than Bogdanovich and seven points better than Anderson). Pierce is a winning basketball player, a player who can facilitate an offense or let the game come to him. He’s a leader on the court and in the locker room. You don’t just allow that kind of player to walk away.
But King did and Nets fans are paying the price this season. They’ve been subjected to watching a very uninteresting team limp to the trade deadline in the hope that some other general manager suffers a brain aneurysm and offers up something of value for one of Brooklyn’s brittle, overpriced, underachieving former All-Stars.
Not that Brooklyn would have fielded a championship-contending team had it kept Pierce. But at least it would have been competitive, which I thought was King’s new mission considering he surrendered every one of the Nets’ own first-round picks until 2019.
It was another one of King’s gross miscalculations. Sorry, Billy — not having The Truth hurts.
Or, as Pierce said prior to Friday’s game, “Any team without Paul Pierce misses him. Period.”
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.