I cringed when I saw that Kevin Sawyer, blogging at Detroit Bad Boys, gave Paul Pierce one of the forward slots on his annual All Overrated Team. I cringed even more when I saw the lead to his explanation:
What has [Pierce] done without Kevin Garnett? For a guy who’s considered a Hall of Fame lock, isn’t it reasonable to ask?
Well, if we were being truly shallow, we could start our rebuttal by reversing that question: What has Kevin Garnett done without Paul Pierce? Because Pierce’s pre-2008 Celtic teams won more playoff series (three) than the two KG’s T’Wolves teams won before 2008, when the C’s traded for Garnett. Sure, the West was far, far better than the East during those seasons, but I assume people are talking about post-season success and championships when they say things, “What did so and so ever win without so and so?”
Ultimately, of course, these are silly questions. It’s empty analysis you can use for any player. What did Michael do without Scottie? What did Malone do without Stockton? What did Larry Bird do without John Bagley?
The whole thing made me ready to go on a rant about how Paul Pierce remains unappreciated, how he toiled—working hard, mostly—on some awful, awful Celtics teams during his prime years. And then I found this endlessly interesting post today at Basketball Reference that does all of the work for me.
Here’s the quick summary: Neil Paine at BR was curious about which players in NBA history played with the best offensive and defensive teammates and which players were lucky enough to have the most great players helping them on either end of the floor. So Neil scratched that itch using Win Shares, a complicated stat that determines approximately how many wins an individual player is responsible for each season. (There are offensive and defensive Win Shares, too, based on separate formulas. Go here if you’re curious).
Some of the findings are interesting, and some are obvious. It’s not surprising, for instance, that the list of players surrounded by the most talented offensive teammates (as measured by Win Shares) features a ton of Showtime Lakers and Bird-era Celtics. Nor is it surprising that Russell-era Celtics dominate the top of the list of players who played with the most collective defensive talent.
The degree to which the Russell Celtics dominate the list, though, is jarring. The first 10 guys on the list all played for the 1960s Celtics. In order:
K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, Satch Sanders, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, Don Nelson.
That sort of dominance is…crazy. Maybe sort of expected. But still crazy.
But there are little nuggets to be found throughout Paine’s findings. Paul Pierce, for instance, appears on the following four lists:
• The players who had the worst collective offensive teammates throughout their careers;
• The players who, individually, played furthest above their teammates’ abilities;
• The players who had the worst overall set of teammates (offense and defense) for their careers;
• The players who did the most to improve the number of games their teams won based on the quality of their teammates. (Or, as Paine puts it, the players who “single-handedly helped their teammates reach new heights.”)
On that last list (topped by 1950s-era player Neil Johnston followed, in order, by Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and David Robinson), Pierce falls four spots below Larry Legend and just above Pau Gasol, Dan Issel, Julius Erving, Reggie Miller, Moses Malone and some other dudes you may have heard about.
Does using Win Shares make for a perfectly accurate list? No, and Paine admits this, especially in regard to defense. But it’s something, and it’s certainly some of the best objective analysis we have.
So the next time someone tries to tell you Paul Pierce is overrated because his teams didn’t achieve much before 2008, tell them, basically, to cram it. In fairness, Sawyer goes on to point out that Pierce makes his list at least in part because Pierce’s production has declined over the last two seasons—and it has. But you sort of undermine that point when you start your analysis with “What has he done without KG?” And it’s also possible Pierce’s production has declined precisely because some other quality players finally arrived in Boston.