It’s kind of sad, in some ways, that Paul Pierce is now predominantly appreciated as a member of a group. He’s one piece of the Big Three, maybe not even the face of it, even though the Celtics were and continues to be his team. We can probably trust Pierce to play in Boston for longer then KG or Ray, but as with the others we’ll speculate on his value today, next season, and in basketball history.
1. Where does Pierce rank, in terms of indispensability, among the members of the Big Four?
Ryan DeGama: Pierce separates himself by being the only guy on the team that can create and finish his own shot. And he inevitably ends up guarding elite scorers on the other side of the ball. But you could make the case for Garnett and Rondo and Ray in similarly compelling fashion. So, best then to say he’s equally indispensable. If you need a metaphor, go rip a tire off of your car and see how well it moves on the MassPike. That’s the C’s in a nutshell.
Hayes Davenport: A very close second to KG. While Pierce provides 4-6 more points per game and is the team’s only shot creator, Garnett runs the defense and is, for now, the team’s sole elite rebounder. But the team would be completely hamstrung without Pierce regardless: it’s his scoring versatility that opens up opportunities for all the other players on the floor, and he’s kept himself on the floor better than KG or Rondo, quietly joining Ray last year as the team’s season leader in games played.
Mike Salvucci: First. This is difficult because Kevin Garnett is still the emotional leader of the Celtics. But at this point in their careers, Pierce is more indispensible. Even at age 34, Pierce is still an elite scorer, and the Celtics would be hard-pressed to find someone who can give them that type of offensive production on a nightly basis. With apologies to KG, defensive-minded power forwards are a little easier to come by in today’s NBA.
2. Break down Pierce’s skills: which have improved in recent years, and which do you expect to decline?
Ryan DeGama: He can’t turn the corner on guys the way he used to and he doesn’t finish as explosively but he can still take the ball to the hoop and score against contact. Plus, he’s playing the most consistent defense of his career the last few years. Expect continued shooting excellence and incremental decline in anything tied to athleticism or stamina. But the main message here is: Pierce is still an all-star by accomplishment, not just by rep.
Hayes Davenport: It’s remarkably hard to find any statistical evidence of Pierce’s decline, because almost every stat is up from last year: his true shooting percentage overall was a career high, and while his three percentage slipped his midrange jumper improved hugely. He’s rebounding about as well as he was three years ago, his steals haven’t budged, and his block rate has actually gone up. But his slowing down is most likely to show itself on defense first, as he struggles to keep up laterally with the LeBrons and Carmelos of the league. But he’s kept up remarkably well so far for his lack of tone, so it maybe be two years before we even notice Pierce falling behind.
Mike Salvucci: I don’t think Pierce’s physical skills have improved all that dramatically, but his decision-making continues to get better with age. Last year, for example, his shot-selection was tremendous. Even though he was the main target of most opposing defenses, he still managed a 55% eFG, the highest of his career. Naturally, his quickness is going to decline, which will limit his ability to defend guys like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. But quickness has never been a vital part of Pierce’s offensive game. Unless his body completely fails him, Pierce is going to produce a few more All-Star seasons thanks to his strength, savvy and shooting ability.
3. This will be Pierce’s 13th year in Boston. Will he be considered a Celtics legend in the company of Bird, Russell, and Havlicek?
Ryan DeGama: Ain’t no doubt. It’s hard to believe but Pierce is going to pass Larry Bird for second on the Celtics’ all-time scoring list in the new year. What’s more, Pierce’s career trajectory is one of the more compelling Celtics tales because the narrative takes in his early failures and petulance and culminates in the Finals MVP of 2008. Everything since just reinforces the image we’ll have of Pierce in the future: a great player that carried the Green for years before he ended up on top of the world.
Hayes Davenport: Yes. Not sure how well his memory will survive across NBA fandom, but he’ll be a Celtics legend for sure, no matter what happens the rest of his career. Pierce will be remembered because it’s easier to remember moments than long-term accomplishments, and Pierce has moments to spare. The stabbing, the buzzer-beater over Al Harrington, the showdowns with LeBron, the winners against Chicago in the playoffs and New York last year, the greatest fourth-quarter comeback of all time, and the wheelchair, not to mention clutching the trophy more memorably than any champion since Jordan cried. Add those to the ones yet to come, including his retirement ceremony that I could probably generate some tears for right now if I really worked at it, and you’ve got a career unusually tailored for permanence.
Mike Salvucci: Absolutely. Obviously, he’s not a Top 5 player of all-time like Russell and Bird. But the truth is, most Celtics’ fans never saw Russell play. And if you’re under 25, you didn’t see Bird play either. No matter how many books you read or ESPN Classic games you watch, none of that can compare to watching Pierce celebrate after the Celtics won the NBA Finals. Certainly, everyone acknowledges that he isn’t the Celtics’ greatest player ever. But Pierce will be the legendary figure for this current generation, just as other Celtic greats were idolized during their respective eras.