They miss his toughness. They miss his leadership. They miss his confidence.
They miss the player who yelled, “That’s why they got me here!” after sticking the dagger in the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of the 2014 playoffs, and then clinched the first-round series with a last-second block in Game 7.
Or, as "The Truth" himself noted: "Any team without Paul Pierce misses him.
The Nets may have felt justified in their decision to pass on re-signing Pierce during the offseason. But their win-loss record and on-court performance suggests they made a mistake in letting the 37-year-old veteran ink a two-year, $11 million contract with the Washington Wizards.
“When the negotiations started, I thought we were gonna bring him back,” said Nets GM Billy King, who gave up three unprotected first-round picks (2014, 2016 and 2018) along with the rights to swap firsts in 2017 to acquire Pierce and Kevin Garnett in a blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics in July 2013. “They were at a number that we weren’t ready to go to, and then they were pretty confident that he was gonna get that number, so we moved in a different direction. And then when they came back, we had already proceeded in a different direction.”
Pierce, who said in October that the Nets never made an offer, had a different perspective on how things unfolded.
“Brooklyn’s been, or New Jersey, Brooklyn, they’re a franchise that’s going in a different direction, I think,” Pierce told NBA.com. “They said they wanted to cut costs, they felt like they weren’t going to be a contender. Right now, they’re kind of in the middle now. And I really didn’t want to be in the middle.”
King respectfully disputed that at the time.
“Our goal is still to try to win a championship,” he said. “We’re not taking any steps back or anything like that.”
The Nets enter Friday night’s game against the Wizards with a 16-23 record, a fringe playoff team in the weak East. They have lost seven straight games, and are just 2-16 against clubs with .500 or better records.
Pierce has flourished since joining the Wizards, who have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference (27-12), averaging 12.8 points on 46 percent shooting (38.8 percent from 3-point range) in 26.6 minutes. He’s posted a net efficiency rating of plus-8.8 points per 100 possessions, while opponents are shooting just 43.1 percent when he guards them (league average -- 44.4), according to NBA.com. Overall, Pierce has brought an estimated 3.1 wins to Washington, according to ESPN Insider.
Pierce, a 17-year veteran, made a similar impact in Brooklyn last season after overcoming the initial shock of being dealt to the Nets following 15 sensational seasons and a championship with the Celtics. He eventually adapted to a diminished role, thriving on offense and defense at the stretch-four position as the Nets rebounded from a 10-21 start under Jason Kidd to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
But Pierce didn’t just make an impact on the court. He also had the guts to go at established, veteran teammates. Pierce and Garnett tried pushing different buttons with Deron Williams, which included Pierce challenging Williams before the Nets turned their season around in 2014, sources told ESPN.com.
Williams responded by scoring 29 points and 41 minutes in Oklahoma City, dominating in the fourth quarter. Brooklyn won the game at the buzzer and went on to go 34-17 the rest of the way.
"We miss (his presence) a lot. Not just his presence, but his experience," Garnett said. "Things he shares with the other guys. Having those guys around for the young players to kind of feed off of -- obviously a view or insight -- he’s helped the young guys here a lot, that’s why I think they’ve prospered."
Said Brook Lopez: “Paul is an amazing teammate. One of the best teammates I have ever played with. No question. Always has your back, always looking for ways to help make you better.”
Heading into the offseason, Pierce believed he’d be back in Brooklyn. The Nets wanted him back. They even had his Bird Rights, meaning they could offer him more than any other team up to a max deal.
But the two sides were far apart after initial talks. Pierce’s camp wanted $9-10 million per season, sources said, while the Nets were thinking a short-term deal in the neighborhood of $6-8 million. Brooklyn had preliminary talks on possible sign-and-trades for Pierce with the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and at least one other team, sources said, but couldn’t find a package they liked.
So, amid Kidd’s stunning departure to Milwaukee, the Nets decided they were moving on.
And finally, signing Pierce would’ve cost them an additional $20 million in luxury taxes. The Nets had just spent an NBA-record $197 million in payroll and luxury taxes in 2013-14, and wanted no part of paying that much in 2014-15 if they weren’t going to compete for a title, sources said.
But even if that was the case, the Nets had given up so much to get Pierce. Why not take another shot in a weak Eastern Conference?
Pierce’s camp even came back to the Nets asking for a lower number, and they still said no thanks. Couldn’t Brooklyn have swung him for additional assets down the road -- perhaps at the trade deadline -- if they weren’t going to contend?
Having Pierce would’ve been huge. Bogdanovic, Teletovic and Karasev have all struggled to make shots. In fact, the Nets rank 29th in offensive efficiency and 3-point field goal percentage since Nov. 12.
Regardless, it appears the Nets are right where Pierce thought they’d be: in the middle. Their max players -- Lopez, Williams and Johnson -- are on the trading block, while their owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, is actively trying to sell the team.
Maybe they weren’t going to compete for a championship, but the Nets would certainly be better off had they re-signed Pierce.