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WASHINGTON – Paul Pierce walked onto the court for media day wearing a No. 34 Washington Wizards jersey, complete with a red sweatband on his forehead and a red wristband pulled almost all the way up to his left elbow.
It's a look no one could have envisioned a few years ago. Pierce himself laughed when it was suggested that he never would have considered playing here in, say, 2010.
"Aw, yeah, of course," he said. "Four years ago, nobody was really talking about Washington. Now they've changed the culture here. They've got some new, exciting players here. Those things really play a big part when you're trying to draw free agents to a city and to a team."
It wasn't the most jarring sight ever seen in the building — don't forget, Michael Jordan once played for this team — but Pierce's decision to sign with Washington is the most tangible evidence that the Wizards have finally left the bottom-feeders behind. They broke a five-year playoff drought last season and could be a serious contender in an Eastern Conference that appears up for grabs.
"You would have never thought three years ago that Paul Pierce would sign with the Wizards," shooting guard Bradley Beal said. "That just shows what kind of guy he is and what kind of team that we have. That shows what he saw in us."
Pierce turns 37 next month, and he concedes that he "probably won't be the No. 1 guy" on a team that includes the young-and-rising backcourt of Beal and John Wall. But the 10-time All-Star and 2008 NBA finals MVP brings another level of leadership and competitiveness that's already started to manifest itself in the informal workouts leading up to the start of training camp on Tuesday.
Pierce was usually the first player at the gym. He helped set up the pickup games. He told stories of how the Boston Celtics built their winning teams with strong chemistry. He and Wall arranged for everyone to go out to dinner last week, where they watched "Thursday Night Football" on television and Pierce picked up the check. Pierce is also nagging Beal and Wall about their free-throw shooting.
"He said I've got to shoot 85 (percent) or better," Wall said. "Paul's already on us about that."
Beal said he's impressed by Pierce's confidence, and that he's also learned something else from the veteran.
"How to trash-talk," Beal said.
An example, please?
"He's real explicit," Beal said, "so I can't do it."
Lineup-wise, Pierce replaces Trevor Ariza, who left as a free agent to sign with the Houston Rockets. Before signing, Pierce said he got his inside intelligence by speaking for hours with old friend and Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell, who has since moved on to join Doc Rivers' staff with the Los Angeles Clippers.
"He did a good job of convincing me," Pierce said, "even though he left me when I got here."
The other starters are the same as last season: Wall, Beal, Nene and Marcin Gortat. That group made the second round of the playoffs before losing in six games to the Indiana Pacers, and Pierce is already challenging them to think bigger.
"Why not us? That's what I try to bring to this ballclub," he said. "That's what I try to tell them in the locker room. Why not us?"
It's new ground for Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 who endured three long, losing seasons before tasting the playoffs.
"I've never been in a situation to have that championship mentality," Wall said. "We just had a mentality to make the playoffs for the first time, so it's pretty big to have that type of guy to come in with that leadership."
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