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On Paul Pierce’s New Deal

 

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.

  • Jay P

    Excellent article Zach, you hit it perfectly.

    It wasn’t the best case scenario for boston, but it was about as good as we could have hoped for.

    I disagree on one point however, given how teams are spending lately, I fully believe if Boston decided to pass on Pierce, or refused that 4th year and he walked; there absolutely would have been a team that gave him the money. Teams (the clippers come to mind) are going to strike out on Bron/Bosh/Wade, and will be desperate to get anything out of this FA market. Once Bron signed, Paul would have been the best SF in FA, without a doubt. I think it’s downright likely that he would have been tossed a 4-year max deal.

    Would he be worth it? Of course not, but look at the contracts that already happened, not a single one is worth the money their getting (Amare included) so it stands to reason that Pierce would have gotten vastly overpaid.

    Bottom line, Boston has no choice, they put up a fight, but in the end, we knew Paul had all the leverage, and if he wanted 4 years, he was going to get 4-years.

  • Perry

    Back on March 28, 2005 I was working the Knicks game for a small market radio station. Before the game I introduced myself to Heinsohn. I asked him about that statement he made about Pierce ultimately becoming the best scorer on Celtic history.

    Why Pierce over Hondo or Bird?

    He said Bird was the best closer, but only Pierce could get his shot from anywhere on the floor.

    If only that were still true.

    At this least in this era the gray beards will have Rondo. When Len Bias died, so did any hope of sustaining Bird and McHale past their prime.

  • Cptn Bubbles

    @Zach LOVED the personal story!!! That was terrific!

  • Cptn Bubbles

    The magicians are signing…………

    Chris Duhon

    Somehow, that sounds strange to me.

    Here is a great quote from a Fish interview (& yes, I think the lake should pay Fish—he won game 3 for them)………

    Interviewer:You’re 35 years old and soon to be 36. You understand why that comes up when people talk about contracts, right?

    Derek Fisher: Yeah, but it’s almost like age discrimination in a sense, and people need to let that go. It’s the performance; it’s not the age. It’s the success of my performance and the teams’ [performance] that should be judged. It doesn’t matter if I’m 25 or 35 in terms of age, you don’t need the birth certificate to figure out whether this guy can play.

  • sam_lt

    Hey Zach, that’s twice I’ve seen you write that Pierce will be 37 in his last season, unless I’m missing something he’ll be 36. 33 this year, 34 next, then 35 and 36. Your points are still valid but somehow 36 doesn’t sound as bad as 37.

  • http://www.truecloud.com Dave

    @Bubbles….Love Fish but just can’t agree with that.

    By that logic, Derek expects the organization to overlook the fact that for 82 games, he was arguably the weakest starter statistically in the entire league.

    That as a result of his weak performance, the brain trust had to devise a defensive strategy for the post season that would prevent the opposition from exploiting Fisher continuously as teams had during the regular season.

    The downside is that it wore Kobe Bryant out almost completely, having to compensate with these very difficult cross match-ups involving the opposition’s point guard.

    Now it’s true that Derek was his typical hero self when it came to crunch time and that is certainly worth something to the franchise which is why they want to re-sign him.

    But just as soon as an organization begins to place too much weight on it’s sentimental regard for what a player has meant to them over a period of time, versus his present capacity to contribute? The overall performance capability of the team is going to slip into decline.

    If Derek really believes he’s worth the value of an MLE for at least 2 years, then he owes it to himself to go try the market to see if other teams agree that at 36 he is worth that kind of an investment.

    I think that the stark reality is that most teams would expect to get more value for that kind of an investment and that there are better alternatives out there for the money.

    You can’t expect Derek to reach that conclusion easily. He’s too competitive for that, and like all players he thinks he can play and compete with these guys forever. But the regular season numbers don’t lie.

  • Jeff

    @Zach

    I agree PP will likely not be worth what he’s getting paid at the end of his deal but you mention that players are worth something on the final year of their deal, but did PP not get a no trade claus in his deal?

    He qualified for it so wouldn’t he not be open to trade the expiring deal?

    Can you qualify that Zach? Do you know if he secured a no trade claus in his deal?

  • Jay P

    @sam_It

    He’ll be 37 before the contract is up. He’s on the back-end of 33 now, turning 34 in October. So in the 2013-2014 season, he’ll turn 37 in October of that year, and finish out the season on the back-end of 37.

    So he turns 34 in October of 2010-2011, 35 in 2011-2012, 36 in 2012-2013, 37 in 2013-2014 (final year of contract.)

  • Keith Popsicle

    The “big three” back in ’99- wow. Toine is a punchline now, of course, but I think he gets a pass for the famous response to the “why do you shoot so many threes?” question.

    “Because there are no fours”

    and of course, the Toine shake!

    I love the Pierce news. He’s earned it and he will likely help the team in that 4th year.

    First, Doc. Now, Pierce, is Ray re-signing next? This seems smart, since there is no way to predict how this free agency madness will play out. Keep a team with good chemistry together (sorry, stats guys. Chemistry does seem to mean something with this team).

  • Berkcelt

    @Jay P, I think sam has it right actually. according to basketball-reference.com,

    “Born: October 13, 1977″

    So he’ll be 33 this October. About 36.5 at the end of the 2013-2014 regular season.

  • Coolin

    What Boston wants/needs is for Rondo to develop a shot (i.e. 15-22′ not a layup) that goes through the rim about 43% of the time and then the Celtics will have a great chance at meeting the Lakers in the title game again next year.
    They still need a couple more free agents, but this Pierce deal is going to be fine. Paul will play at the same level just for fewer minutes a game in the regular season and an increase in the playoffs.

  • Jay P

    @Berkcelt

    Touche. My bad, ya, he turns 33 this year. Back end of 36 at contract end.

    @Coolin

    Check Rondo’s 2010 Shot location numbers:

    http://www.hoopdata.com/player.aspx?name=Rajon%20Rondo

    46.9% from 10-15, 33% from 16-22.

    Obviously the mid range needs to improve, and I don’t know his playoff numbers there (they seemed to be higher to me, but I can’t seem to find the playoff stats on Hoopdata.)

    But the point is, his shot is definitely improving, and I have no reason to believe it wont continue to. Rondo continues to gain more confidence, and more than that, this team now knows it’s role, and Rondo is the guy, a full year of what they finally put together in the playoffs last year (letting Rondo run the show and trusting him) will do wonders for his development, and I fully believe at the end of next year we will be talking about Rondo as bar none, the best PG in Basketball, and a top scoring option for Boston, rather than the last option he was all of last year.

  • P43

    Paul Pierce is worth the money at any age. I defy you to find a more consistent player over the comparable period.

    I would not call 19pts a game declining in any circumstance, considering that he has had far fewer opportunities than he had in 07′ when he avg 25ppg on a last place team.

    He’s an all time player who just gave us a hometown discount. I’m getting a little tired of the navel gazing on this. If you let the guy go, believe me you would have seen this franchise fall into the abyss. He’s the security blanket for the team in every sense of the word.

  • Reg

    Who cares if your’re fine with it or not? Who are you?

  • Smell That? Boston.

    Pierce staying is what every Lakers fan wants. He’s lotsa puff, not a lot when it counts. Providing the illusion of hope for this haggard team lulls them into those horrible 4th quarters, thus assuring they more than likely wont even make it out of the first round in 2010/11.

    Skilled? Sure. Yapper mouth that bows big games for his team? Most definitely.

    So welcome back Pierce, too bad we wont be meeting when it counts.

    Love,

    The Lakers & Fans

    PS – Great fucking summer eh? The party is STILL going here, and weekly burnings of Celtics jerseys at every one.

  • dont_drink_the_koolaid

    u nailed it with this article. although i do think he would have gotten that cash (or more) elsewhere.

    my gut feeling is his athleticism is already well in the process of dropping off a cliff. he can not create his own shot anymore other than his stepback and the refs give him less freebies when he takes it to the paint. the only way he can stay effective is rondo develops further and he uses his old school herky-jerkisms to play off him more efficiently. and he will increasingly rely on his 3pointer to be more of a stationary catch and shoot guy.

  • ereed6

    Ill agree in some respects. I have always been a celtics fan if i needed to pick a team(i’m from ohio I’m still not sure why i became a celtics fan) I didn’t follow basketball until the 06-07(lucky for me) but i clearly liked basketball games more than the nba, and it worked out great because I hate playing easy games so when i would play a basketball game I would get to be a terrible team because I would be the Celtics. But Kobe Bryant Courtside I will make some ballsy statements about because give me ‘Toine Ron Mercer Kenny Anderson and especially Walter Mccarty. And I would dominate. Well I’m drunk but I always had faith in Toine because of this game.

  • http://tds.net Randy Foose

    Great Article. The Celtics still combine loyalty with good business sense Red must be happy!

  • red’s ghost

    I disagree with the notion that Paul is going to be vastly overpriced by the end of the deal. Look at in in this way – how much money did the team make from this finals run? The contract is just a payback for the decade and a half of giving it all for the team and I like the fact that C’s still do things the old school way. Mostly any other team would’ve traded Ray at the deadline and consequently would get eliminated by the Cavs. Not Danny and Doc.

    I mean, if anyone else is stupidly claiming we are too old (go ask LeBron if we really are), can’t at least our own fans realize that in two years it still will be better to have KG-Ray-PP than to pay similar money to Rudy Gay, OJ Mayo and Zack Randolph or some other unproven “talents”. Show some respect and trust the guys who brought us #17 after 25 years!

    In my opinion, The Truth is worth 4-year max and Ray should get 3 years at 10 mils per. There are no available guys in the market who can do what we just did and what we are going to do again.

    4 quality opponents? We just faced exactly that (D-Wade counts) and came up short by a crooked-23-Laker-free-throws-fourth-quarter-on-their-homecourt-withouth-Perk…

    Go Celtics!

  • Terry

    Of course there is some team out there that would have paid Pierce. Have you seen what the medicore players are getting? The guy can’t win in Boston with some fans. He takes a home team discount and he’s still villified for asking for something in return. Hey, I know, why don’t we just ask him to play for free and then kick him to the curb when he finally does start to decline. Would that make people happy?

    I also take umbridge with your assertion that Pierce’s numbers have been on the decline. What you see in the stats you linked is Pierce taking fewer shots and less of the offense being run through him….in other words what you see is Rondo taking over the team. That was by design. In actuallity Pierce finished this season with the best numbers fg, 3pt, and ft percentages of his career and his free throws per shot rate is right up there as well.
    He can still get his shot off whenever he wants, but that’s no longer something he’s asked to do. He’s asked to share the ball and he has. You can’t take anything away from him for that.

  • http://www.celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    @terry: take a look at his mid-range shooting %s.

  • jeremy

    if his 3 point shot continues to improve and stays healthy he could very well be just as good in a few years time not many people have ever been as prolific in making 3s and free throws consistantly over a career . he is already slow never really an elite athlete its not as if his game would get much worse

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