Paul Pierce is rarely quiet. Pick a practice, any practice, and you can hear the Celtics captain chirping commands above the bounce of balls and squeaking of sneakers. The quips are usually instructive, and when practice ends Pierce is always playing for something, trying to be the first to put a ball in the basket while sitting on the bench or facing the other shot clock.
“Compete level” is a contrived phrase drummed up by those who feel the need to tell others how hard they’re working, but for 14 seasons Pierce has played the only way he knows how. He’s been remarkably consistent, but since he hasn’t always been on winning teams, it’s made his legacy somewhat complicated. But sit down and watch a practice or listen in on a huddle during a timeout and there’s no question who the leader of the Celtics is.
This matters because Pierce’s name has come up in trade rumors following the season-ending injury to Rajon Rondo. Trading Pierce makes sense on paper. He could instantly bring a contending team closer to a championship, and only $4 million of his $15.3 million salary next season is guaranteed, allowing a team to cut him loose without a major hit. That’s real value, the kind that might bring back a decent young player, an expiring contract, a draft pick, or some combination of the three. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge would be foolish not to explore the trade market for any of his players, but trading Pierce would be a mistake. Ainge owes it to Pierce, and to Celtics fans, to let Pierce’s career play out in Boston.
Rondo’s injury was a shock to the system to everyone, but especially to Pierce, who found out the news seconds after a stirring double-overtime victory over the Miami Heat Sunday afternoon. When ESPN’s Doris Burke told Pierce of Rondo’s torn ACL, the Celtics forward couldn’t help but mutter “Oh my god” before delivering a controlled answer about moving forward without his point guard. Rondo’s absence likely deprives Pierce of another deep playoff run this spring. He and Kevin Garnett aren’t getting any younger, and they know their potential as a team is limited without Rondo. Realistically the Celtics as we’ve known them are on life support, and the new reality for Pierce is answering questions about his uncertain future.
“I want to retire as a Celtic,” Pierce said Tuesday. “That’s been my longtime goal. But it’s not in my control.”
There have been several hypothetical Pierce trades proposed by NBA writers in recent weeks (Grantland’s Zach Lowe has the best roundup here.) One proposed deal would send Pierce to the struggling Lakers and Pau Gasol to the Celtics. Another deal that might make sense is a swap of Pierce for the Warriors’ Harrison Barnes and Richard Jefferson. That trade would give the Warriors, who are currently in 5th place in the Western Conference, a real shot at a title this season. It would also rid them of Jefferson’s contract (he’s making $10.1 million this season and has a player option for $11 million next season), and it would give the Celtics an exciting young player in Barnes that is a future building block. The odds of Golden State actually departing with young star Barnes are long, however.
Another potential landing spot for Pierce could be the Clippers, who are all-in this season and could solidify their No. 1 seed with Pierce’s help. A Los Angeles homecoming could give the Clippers the push they need to win it all and could bring the Celtics guard Eric Bledsoe, some cap relief in Lamar Odom’s expiring deal, and a draft pick. Pierce doesn’t have a no-trade clause, but Ainge would be doing the best he could for Pierce by sending him home and to a contender.
Any of the above deals would still feel like a punch in the gut both because of Pierce’s past history with the Celtics and his current value to the team. By now you know that Pierce has done enough in his time here to ensure his number being retired into the rafters. If you need a reminder, here’s where Pierce ranks among Celtics leaders all-time.
Points: 2d (behind John Havlicek)
Assists: 4th (behind Larry Bird, Havlicek, and Bob Cousy)
3-pointers made: 1st
Free throws: 1st
Games played: 3d
If you’re not the nostalgic type, it might be instructive to see how valuable Pierce is to the Celtics right now. He’s the team’s leader in both scoring and minutes, for one. If you’re a whiz kid, try to keep up with these next statistics: The Celtics use Pierce on almost 28 percent of their offensive plays. He attempts 37 percent of their free throws. His estimated wins-above-replacement of 5.8 ranks him 31st in the league, higher than any other Celtic (Garnett ranks 54th). Those numbers should only go up now that Rondo is out and the Celtics plan to run more of their offense through Pierce, their most valuable player.
Ever the leader, Pierce had all the right things to say to the media Tuesday about Rondo’s absence.
“You really don’t replace a Rondo,” Pierce said. “It’s hard to replace an All-Star guard. It’s just about understanding what the team needs. It’s something I’ve been doing for years, understanding what the team needs on any given night. I’m anxious to see how this thing works out.”
You can’t really replace a Paul Pierce, either. Any thought of doing that should make Celtics fans very nervous indeed.