Post-game Reactions

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? 

                                                                      Pierce                            Bird

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.

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Zach Lowe

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  • Mike

    Everybody knows that!! Pierce is a star. Bird is a Legend!!

  • Berkcelt

    Pierce also played in the farcical O’Brien offense. While I loved the 2001-02 team, it was really ugly at times. (What was it, game 3 or game 4 in the conference semifinals vs. Detroit – 66-64. Toine and Pierce actually run a basketball play toward the end of the game, the simplest give and go you can make and probably set up from a game long of Duck Drive Bail Chuck Duck Goose, and it made you want to cry). Doc’s given a lot of credit for improving Pierce’s game, but I think part of it was just showing up with an actual offense.

    Anyway, until somebody can measure a player’s performance in the context of his team and all those external factors shaping any given player’s performance, I don’t think Paul is winning any comparisons with LB.

  • Perry

    Would emphatically agree on Bird.

    Would Hondo place second?

    Watched him rise from a second/third option in the mid 60’s to go-to-guy for most of the next decade. He did it without a 3 point line yet still was a pretty devastating force racking up the most total points. Just a beautiful, sound, fundamental genus on the court.

    Pierce has a chance to become the all time points leader, but it will take 3 years of 2000+ points. Pierce and Hondo’s FG% are almost identical (slight edge to Pierce), but Hondo will register more 3000 point seasons — unless Pierce remains healthy this year and find more ways to score since I doubt he can repeat a 41% 3pt FGM output.

    I would have to place Pierce second because of his athleticism and ability to create and get to the line … and the rim. But stats withstanding the Celtics had so many terrific, unique offensive players — Sam Jones, Sharman, Tommy, Jo Jo, Westy, and McHale.

  • Sophomore

    I’d go with Bird, too.

    At the same time, to cite one stat on behalf of PP, his career true shooting percentage is actually a tenth of a point higher than Bird’s – 56.5 vs. 56.4. I was pretty shocked by that. For every shot that PP attempted, over his career, he was a tiny bit more likely to score than Bird. This is by such a small percentage that it obviously doesn’t mean much and could change by the end of this year – especially because it depends on Pierce getting to the line. But there it is, and it reflects a very large body of work.

    All the same, it’s hard to believe Bird wasn’t a better pure last-minute scorer (Bill Simmons would never have referred to a Bird iso at the end of a quarter as the “clogged toilet” offense), and you have to account for Bird’s exceptional passing, which made the whole offense more potent. Those assist numbers are a pretty big deal.

  • I don’t know. Statistically, Bird clearly has an advantage. But what would Paul’s stats be if he’d played on teams the caliber of the 80’s Celtics in his prime? We’ll never know, but I suspect they’d be better than what they are now.

  • Bird is the best in C’s history

  • Chris O.

    I liked this piece…its fatal flaw??? They played in different Era’s. Bird scored more points and had better numbers in a much faster paced offense happy Era. Everyone was the Phoenix Suns back then. Question is is Bird played now what would he do? If Pierce played then? Would I question Bird is a better player??? Hell no Bird is top 10 maybe top 5 of all time but Pierce may be a better pure scorer. Don’t forget Bird’s numbers are inflated by the Era.

  • Chris O.

    ‘scoring peaked in 1984-85 with an average team putting up 110.8 points per game’

    According to Basketball Prospectus

    Seems like that was dead in Bird’s prime, you would have to do something based on total % of offense and/or pace adjusted to have a good analysis

  • li jia

    i really think pierce is not greater than bird,not only because the above data compare,but also the role of key time they show.

  • As much as I love and defend Paul Pierce…and I do the latter often living in SoCal. I can’t say he is better offensively than Larry legend! Bird is a top 10 all time player. He was transendent. Larry and magic built the game up to a point where MJ could take over. Larry won many titles. Carried his team hit clutch shots and made famous plays. “the steal by bird!!!” Paul as great as he was as he is and how well he will be remembered isn’t wasn’t and never could have been Larry bird.

  • massappeal

    “The way he manufactures points.” That’s Parish’s reason (at least as I read it) for declaring Pierce the Celtics’ best offensive player. This is a point Bob Ryan has made many times as well, and I’ll agree with them. (I didn’t see Sam Jones play though.)

    Bird was a great player, but in terms of offensive weapons at his disposal—the number of ways, when he has the ball in his hands, he can create opportunities for himself to score—Pierce is better.

    Note: Was Bird a better passer? Yes. A better rebounder? Yes. But that’s not the criterion Parish was using.

  • Parish called Pierce the best offensive player in C’s history. Passing and rebounding are part of offense.

  • w2

    Not even close. Bird.

  • CsFanInArkansas

    We’re all Cs fans arguing over who the better offensive Cs player was…seems a little silly to me…

    The Chief is entitled to his opinion – and may not have been entirely objective or statistically driven in his reasoning…but he’s The Chief! They’re both going to be remembered among the greatest Celts to ever suit up…So, let’s agree that LB and PP are two of the greatest offensive Cs of all time, and focus more on something less divisive…

    Example: Am I the only Celts fan that thinks Pau Gasol is the SOFTEST big man in the game right now?! I mean, the complete inability to dunk the ball after contact; the horrific scowls he throws on when trying to work the refs; the cry-baby mentality on the defensive end of the floor; the girly fist-pump…am I the only one??

  • Jeff

    Simply put…no one is Bird…no one.

    Pierce is good but I’m afraid he won’t be mentioned with the likes of Jordan or Johnson.

    Paul is viewed below (ugh) Kobe frikin Bryant. Larry will forever be viewed as one of the top 3 players of all time. Paul won’t ever get to that level in the discussion.

    If the C’s were to win the next 2 titles and then Paul got one in the twilight of his career and ended with 4 titles under his belt it would be looked at with much more scrutiny, but he still won’t make it there.

    Love ya Paul but in C’s history…

    1 Larry
    2 Russel
    3 Hondo
    4 Paul

  • Fair point on pace/league context from Chris O

  • Chris O

    Thanks Zach, I’m not even really argueing either way but especially with your point about rebounds and assists it almost seems like you would HAVE to give the nod to Bird (he was basically a walking triple double in his 3 MVP seasons). I just think ppl overlook that Pierce scored basically 22 ppg for his career on a team that averaged roughly 95ish a game compared to Bird scored basically 24 ppg for his career on a team that averaged roughly 105ish a game. They are both amazing scorers Bird being 16th all time in PPG and Pierce being 26th…who woulda think Pierce would currently rank 26th…GOD BLESS THE CELTICS

  • KC

    If i needed 2 points … I’d go to McHale down low.

    Maybe McHales numbers dont stack up over a carear. But in a one possesion game, I’d go with Bird to score or make a score for someone else, and Plan B would be to dump it down to McHale. And thats no knock on Pierce.

  • Bird averaged 30ppg shooting 53%?? PUKE!!

  • massappeal

    @Jeff, not to start another argument, but any list of greatest Celtics that doesn’t have Bill Russell at the top has something wrong with it.

  • rav

    Bird had to play with McHale and Parish, 2 great offensive options.

    Pierce only had Antoine Walker inhibiting his production.

  • this is laughable, dont even mention paul pierce in the same breath as larry legend. if bird was playing now in an era were one man takes 40 shots a game he average 40 points a game. larry bird is the greatest cveltic ever period. best passer shooter, hands down. paul pierce compared to bird is a topic that should never be compared. and dats the truth : ))

  • i hate to se ethis but i think parrish is still getting that weed mailed to him. if he made that statement obviously hes still high on the weed he smoked thru out is career. wake up chief moron

  • Jonathan

    Though more athletic, and a better finisher off the dribble Pierce couldn’t make his team mates so much better as Bird clearly did. LB also had the instincts to make the back breaking defensive stop, offensive rebound, blind pass for an easy two at just the right moment, in the most important games. The greater the pressure, the greater the play. The outside shooting has no comparison when Bird would hit running fall away 3’s through a triple team. Paul is a great player, but Bird just had some supernatural basketball gifts. MJ id the only guy that could compare, but MJ never had the kind of competition LB did when the Bulls were head and shoulders above the rest of the NBA.

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