As you’ve probably seen, Robert Parish on Monday declared Paul Pierce “the best offensive player the Celtics have seen thus far.”
Is he right?
PPG (career) 22.5 24.3
FG % (career) 44.5% (16.5 shots/g) 49.6% (19.3 shots/g)
3-point% (career) 36.9% (4.5 shots/g) 37.6% (1.9 shots/g)
FTA/g (career) 7.7 5.0
Assists/g (career) 3.8 6.3
ORBs/g (career) 1.0 2.0
Turnovers 3.0 3.1
By any objective measure, Larry Bird was a better offensive player than is Paul Pierce. The Truth may be a better manufacturer of points in the sense that he was a free throw machine in his prime and managed much of his scoring without a decent point guard to run the offense or much overall talent around him.
Pierce’s prime seasons, though historically elite, also can’t touch Bird’s best years. Here are three of Pierce’s best seasons (all numbers per game):
2001: 25.3 points, 45.4%, 3.1 assists, 3.2 TOs, 9.0 FTAs, 37.3% from three-point range;
2002: 26.1 points, 44.2%, 3.2 assists, 2.9 TOs, 7.8 FTAs, 40.4% from three-point range;
2006: 26.8 points, 47.1%, 4.7 assists, 3.5 TOs, 10.3 FTAs, 35.4% from three-point range.
And here are three prime Larry seasons:
1985: 28.7 points, 52.2%, 6.6 assists, 3.1 TOs, 5.7 FTAs, 42.7% from three-point range
1987: 28.1 points, 52.5%, 7.6 assists, 3.2 TOs, 6.1 FTAs, 40% from three-point range
1988: 29.9 points, 52.7%, 6.1 assists, 2.8 TOs, 6.0 FTAs, 41.4% from three-point range
The shooting percentage and the assists are what separate a borderline top 50 player from a top-10 all-time player. Pierce’s edge in free throw attempts—about 3 per game when we consider their prime years—does not make up for Bird’s advantages everywhere else. The same trends persist in their playoff numbers. And Pierce’s edge in raw three-point baskets stems more from the fact that teams emphasize the three-point shot more now than they did in the 1980.
Pierce was surrounded by mediocre talent during his prime, and we are right to wonder what sorts of numbers he might have put up had he spent his best seasons playing with even slightly above average teammates. After all, his shooting percentage has climbed to well above his career average since KG and Ray Allen arrived in Boston.
But that is all speculation, and it is not part of the historical record. That record suggests that Larry Bird, not Paul Pierce, is the greatest offensive player in Celtic history. And we haven’t even discussed Kevin McHale and John Havlicek.