When asked what he thought of the newly-extended Paul Pierce last week, former center Robert Parish spoke quickly and emphatically: “I think Paul Pierce, the way he manufactures points is the best player the Celtics have seen thus far.” He was absolutely certain that when Paul Pierce retires his number will be retired to the rafters of the TD Garden (or wherever they’re playing in four years), joining the likes of Bill Russel, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, and Robert Parish himself.
The Argument for Paul Pierce
Statistically, Paul Pierce is in the top-five of all offensive players for the Celtics. He ranks third in points (19,899, behind Bird and Havlicek), second in points-per-game (22.51, behind just Bird), first in free-throws made (5,422), first in attempts (6,763), and first in three-pointers (1,467). He also ranks in the top ten in several other key offensive categories, including offensive rebounds (8th, 892), field goals (5th, 6,505), and assists (7th, 3,402). This level of production on so many different offensive fronts could easily justify Parish’s placing him as the best offensive player the Celtics have ever seen.
I think that Robert Parish also considers basketball now to be the best its ever been. Looking at the way offenses run today, especially for players who work primarily out of the small forward position, it is fair to say that the goal is to drive to the basket and get fouled. Ideally you score a basket, but getting to the line is seen as just as valuable. If that’s the case, and if that’s the best basketball has ever been, then the Celtic with the most made free-throws could be considered the best Celtic there’s ever been. And no one has ever produced free-throws for the Celtics (what Parish calls “manufacturing points”) like “The Truth.” However, if you don’t believe that basketball is better now than its been at any previous point, then Pierce’s contributions as a free-throw shooter are not so spectacular.
The Argument Against Paul Pierce
The biggest argument against Paul Pierce as the best offensive player ever comes down to numbers. Specifically, the number of championships and the number of MVPs won. Paul Pierce has one of each: one NBA title, one Finals MVP. No league MVP awards. Compare that with any number of former Celtics and it becomes clear that Paul Pierce just hasn’t performed at the same level. Bill Russell, for example,won eleven championships and five MVP awards (to be fair, Russell was known for his defense rather than his offense). John Havlicek, meanwhile, despite only one MVP (Finals MVP, 1974), boasts eight championship rings. Larry Bird had a more balanced career, winning only three rings, while picking up three season MVPs and two Finals MVPs. While Paul Pierce may have some individual statistical achievements, it can’t be argued that he was ever good enough to carry his team to a title. It was only in 2007, when the Celtics finally brought in some help, that he was able to put together a championship. So while he was the best player of the Finals in 2008, it can be argued that he might not even have been the best player on the team that year. If that’s the case, and that was his best year, how can he be considered the greatest offensive player in Celtics history?
Additionally, Paul Pierce is only first in free-throws made, attempted, and three-pointers made. These are all important offensive categories, but frankly I think they’re all secondary to the big stats: total points and points-per-game. Free-throws have only become important since the general offensive strategy of the NBA shifted to place more importance on fouls and getting to the line than passing and finding the open shots.
I attribute a lot of this to the influx of soccer-influenced European and South American players into the NBA in the last 15 years (basically, I blame it all on Manu Ginobili). With them came the practice of “flopping:” aggrandizing every contact to the point that you appear to be in so much pain and distress that the referee has essentially no choice but to call a foul. Once flopping came to the NBA, every player started doing it. And Paul Pierce is one of the worst floppers there’s ever been. It gets him to the line, allowing him to “manufacture points,” but I think it brings down the overall game. Constant fouling diminishes the quality of the game. It slows things down, disrupts both sides from finding offensive rhythm, and makes everything more about the individual than the team. Watching games from the era of the first Big Three (in my opinion, Boston’s best period), you don’t see this. What you see is what soccer fans call “the beautiful game:” continuous passing, constant moving, gorgeous shots coming from all angles. And defensively you see real battles and tests of physical strength. The threat of the foul has kept modern NBA teams from really committing to the rebound, leading to more scrambles and a general sense of anarchy and uncertainty after the shot.
Paul Pierce’s three-point numbers are interesting, but the three-point shot has always had a curious place in the NBA. Purists despise it and conspirators think it was invented to given certain players (mainly white ones) an advantage. In any event, its importance has only grown because the paint game has gone down the tubes because everyone is scared of getting called for the foul. Without the inside game, teams go more to beyond the arc, in part because there’s no point in taking a shot from 21 feet when taking a few steps back will give you an extra point with little added difficulty. So once again we have one of Paul Pierce’s top stats diminished if we accept the notion that NBA offense now is not as good as it used to be.
So If It’s Not Pierce, Who’s the Best?
The only way we can accept Paul Pierce as the best offensive Celtic better is if we accept that the NBA’s current offensive strategy is the best ever. If it’s not, then Paul Pierce drops a few pegs, back into the top five. Which I think is where he belongs. He’s an amazing player, dynamic and captivating. He’s tough as nails and an incredible captain. And his willingness and desire to stay with the same team for his entire career, especially with free agency the way it is, speaks to his character as a person. There’s no doubt in my mind that his number will be retired by the franchise the moment he does. After all, who else could wear number 34?
But if the Truth is not the best, who is? I think we have to turn first and foremost to John Havlicek. His eight championships ties him for third all-time behind Russell and Sam Jones. He leads the franchise in career points and is third in points-per-game. He also leads the franchise in games and minutes, meaning his contributions to the team lasted the longest. And his epic steal in the 1965 Eastern Conference Championship will live forever in Celtics lore as one of the great plays in playoff history.
Paul Pierce boasts neither the career numbers, rings, awards, nor magical moments (the closest may be his game-winner against the Miami Heat in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, but that play neither clinched the series nor led to a title) to be considered the best offensive player in Celtics history. Havlicek was probably the best, Bird the most versatile and clutch, and Cousy the most innovative. Paul Pierce probably stands at 4th behind them. And considering the talent and gravitas of the above-mentioned players, that should be enough for anyone.