With my senior year of college winding down in May 1999, a buddy of mine snagged tickets about five rows from the court behind one baseline for Boston’s home finalé against the Hornets. We drove down from New Hampshire for the game expecting nothing. Neither team was any good, but I was working hard at being optimistic about the Celtics—something that hadn’t been easy since the draft lottery two years earlier hadn’t gone Boston’s way.
My optimism was based on the team’s three building blocks—Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer and Pierce. The latter had fallen into Boston’s lap with the 10th pick in the 1998 draft as teams above Boston wasted picks on Michael Olowokandi, Tractor Traylor and Larry Hughes. Any basketball fan knew instantly that Pierce was a steal at #10.
Still: At that moment in 1999, Pierce was, for me, third in that hierarchy behind Walker and Mercer. It was fan appreciation night that night, and the C’s had players at the turnstiles handing out free t-shirts. Walter McCarty was at my turnstile, and Mercer was at the one directly to my right. Mercer at the time was making noise about demanding a monster long-term deal when he became a free agent. I was a shy kid back then, but when I saw Mercer at the head of the line, I tried to work up the courage to say something like, “Hey, man, stay in Boston. We’ve got a good thing going here.” I wimped out, of course, but the point is that I cared enough about Ron Mercer—Ron Mercer!—staying in Boston that I almost embarrassed myself by pleading with him to stay.
A few minutes later, I went into one of the souvenir shops and purchased what in retrospect is a pretty awesome tchotchke—a wooden plaque about four inches by three inches with a photo of Antoine Walker affixed to it above an engraving of his name. (I bought the Byron Dafoe version of the same item).
I was a Walker evangelist back then. I was positive he would redefine the power forward position, and in a way, he did. He was going to be one the top 10 players in the league. He was the star.
I came out of that game thinking most about Pierce. It was an absolutely wild game—one of the best games I’ve ever seen live, actually. Seriously: Check out the box score. The Hornets won 133-129 in double overtime, and it was the kind of late-season game that both teams cared more and more about as it remained close and the fans got into it. Corey Beck iced the game with a clutch three in the second overtime, but it was Pierce who made big shot after big shot to keep Boston in it. He wanted the ball, and he was comfortable in the clutch.
Eleven years later, Walker has become a punch line, Mercer an NBA wash-out, and it’s Pierce now set to finish his career as a Celtic after signing a 4-year, $61 million deal with the final year fully guaranteed. If Pierce plays, say, 70 games per season over that stretch and averages 14 points per game, he’ll finish with about 1,160 games played (2nd in Boston history behind Havlicek) and about 24,000 total points (also 2nd behind Hondo). He will indisputably be one of the five or six greatest Celtics ever. You could slot him 3rd behind Russell and Bird, and you’d have a very solid argument.
Let’s get this out of the way: Pierce, who will be 33 by the start of next season, is going to be overpaid by the end of this deal. There were only 18 guys in the league this season who were 35 or older (as of Feb. 1), and with a few exceptions (Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Marcus Camby), it’s a list of guys whose skills have eroded completely or are eroding on a logarithmic curve. Only five of those guys were 37 or older, the age Pierce will be when this deal ends—Shaq, Hill, Lindsey Hunter, Kevin Ollie and Kurt Thomas.
The Celtics did not want that fourth year guaranteed, and they were right to fight for that. We should be happy if Pierce is worth the mid-level exception (if it exists) in 2014 let alone $15 million. Heck, there’s a good chance Pierce will be vastly overpaid by the second or third year of this contract.
The argument for re-signing him is that any other path would be very challenging and require a significant step back in the short term. It will be difficult to rebuild as long as one player (Kevin Garnett) takes up nearly 40 percent of the salary cap. If anything forced the C’s hand here, it is Garnett’s deal.
The Celtics could have gotten themselves about $16 million in cap room by renouncing Pierce and Ray Allen and then used that space to go after one of the big free agents. They could have also taken that space, tossed in two first-round picks and approached Philadelphia about Andre Iguodala.
There were alternatives. There always are. But you’d be leaving a lot to chance by choosing those alternatives, and you’d almost certainly be tossing away a chance at a title next season. Would a top-flight free agent come to a team that had Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and a couple of league-average big men? Would Boston really be able to turn that (now imaginary) cap space into a lop-sided trade that could help now and in the future? If you think the answer is no, you roll the dice with Pierce, I guess.
In that sense, the C’s surprising playoff run may have nudged the team in this direction. If Boston had gone out quietly in the conference semis against Cleveland, what would the right move have been with Pierce?
An even more relevant question might be: Should the changing landscape of the Eastern Conference matter in this decision? If the C’s coast through the regular season again, there’s a very good chance they won’t have a soft first-round opponent against whom they could gain their playoff footing. Can this group get through four tough rounds?
Sentimentality aside, this deal is not a no-brainer. The notion that some team with leftover cap space—the Nets or Clippers—would have thrown a pile of cash at Pierce is not on its own a justification for overpaying Pierce. And I’m not convinced that scenario would have happened, given Pierce’s age and declining numbers.
The Celtics management is smart, so they know Pierce will be overpaid at the end of this contract. But the last year of any NBA contract always brings the possibility of a decent trade, and this contract brings the possibility of Pierce retiring in a way that helps the team financially. The greatest small forward in Boston history did that, so why wouldn’t the second-greatest?
This is really a deal for the next two seasons, and I’m fine with that. It’s not perfect, but it positions this team to compete for a title next season. If KG really is healthier, if Rondo improves and if the C’s connect with all of their free agent signings and trades, the C’s will be right there with any other contender.
This isn’t a perfect deal, but it might be the best Boston can do given every factor in play. That’s really all we can ask for.