Paul Pierce has always been a contradiction. He’s not athletic enough to be an elite NBA scorer, yet he’s averaged more than 22 points for his career. He’s not quick enough to be a great defender, yet he’s shut down Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in the playoffs.
He’ll never be Larry Bird, and yet there he was, passing Bird to move into No. 2 on the Celtics’ all-time scoring list Tuesday night.
After the game, Pierce echoed the sentiments of majority.
“I’m not gonna sit here and say that I’m anywhere near his accomplishments,” said Pierce, talking about Bird.
Pierce didn’t become a Celtics legend Tuesday night, as many have said. He’d already done plenty to earn that distinction. Whether or not he ever intended to pass Bird, Pierce has carved out his legend through 13 sometimes tumultuous, sometimes euphoric seasons in Boston. His 13 seasons have been marked by incredible durability, consistent scoring, and loyalty to the same franchise in an age when that’s considered a bad thing.
Defining his legacy is not easy.
Perhaps more than with any other Boston athlete in recent memory, even diehards have a difficult time tying a pretty bow around Pierce’s Place in Celtics lore. Unique circumstances have worked for and against Pierce in his Celtics career. Some have done both. Four stand out:
— He’s played his entire career here.
— He’s unorthodox
— He’s been the best player on a lot of bad teams. He’s stepped back a bit to blend in with a few very, very good teams.
— He won a championship, but only after the arrivals of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
It’s all helped — and it’s all hurt — Pierce’s legacy in some way. Take the first bullet point. Celtics fans who’ve watched Pierce since his rookie season in 1998 have seen just how dominant he can be. Those insiders have appreciated his contributions, but they’re also likely to take them for granted. Pierce has always been ours. Like with an ex-girlfriend, you miss some people the most only after they’ve left. For a few years, Pierce’s loyalty to the Celtics seemed to some like an admission of losing. It seemed, at times, misguided.
“You knew eventually it would turn around,” Pierce said of his losing years with the Celtics. “I’ve just always been the optimist, just knowing eventually, ‘The next year, the next year’. That’s what I always kept saying to myself, that it would eventually turn around.”
Then there’s the case of playing style. Those who haven’t watched Pierce day-in-and-day-out aren’t accustomed to it. It’s a style that would make Pythagoras jealous, all straight lines and angles, all in what seems like slow motion. There’s very little room for freak athleticism, though fans who know better know that Pierce is an incredibly gifted athlete. To score more points than Larry Bird means you’ve beaten people off the dribble or to the rim a few times. Still, it’s a game that outsiders view as unusual, even inferior.
Comparisons to Bird smack right up against conventional Boston sports wisdom. But taken out of that context, they’re valid. Bird averaged 24.3 points for his career to Pierce’s 22.3 points, though Bird needed 3.1 more shots per game to reach that average. Shooting percentage — Bird is thought of as one of the best shooters ever — is strongly in favor of Bird, with Bird’s career average at 49.6 percent and Pierce’s at 44.8 percent. Parse the numbers, however, and the disparity in the shooting numbers disappears. Pierce has attempted 4,370 3-point field goals in his career, to 1,727 for Bird. When you look at a metric called True Shooting Percentage, which takes into account efficiency for 2-point field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws, Pierce’s TPS is .569, compared to .564 for Bird.
If you choose not to delve into the secondary stats, you should at least be comfortable admitting that both Bird and Pierce are great scorers. Both scored more points in a Celtics uniform than Bill Russell, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Tommy Heinsohn.
But you can’t forgot about the bad stuff with Pierce, which is what makes the Bird comparisons so difficult for some. Almost everyone remembers the stabbing incident on Sept. 25 of 2000, but few people remember that Pierce played 82 games that season following his recovery (he played 82 games the next season as well). From his rookie season of 1998 until the assemblage of the New Big Three in 2007, Pierce played on a lot of bad teams. He also took a team that had no business being there to the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics made it to the conference semifinals the following season. Their only truly terrible season in those lean years came during the only season — 2006 — in which Pierce missed any significant amount of time. Pierce has played in 79 or more games in nine of his 13 complete seasons in the league.
Pierce was known as a prima donna during those bad years, and the truth is he probably was. After a loss to the Pacers in the 2005 playoffs, Pierce wore a fake bandage on his head during a press conference. Pierce was also on the disastrous 2002 US World Championship team in which the Americans failed to make it out of the quarterfinals. In addition to being the face of his own bad team, he was the face of the country’s biggest ever basketball disappointment.
“I’m the classic case of a great player on a bad team,” Pierce told the Globe’s Jackie MacMullan in 2007. “And it stinks.”
There was a reason Pierce earned the arrogant label, but the label came from the perspective of losing. Arrogance is what Kobe Bryant and Derek Jeter and Tom Brady all have that separates them from their competition. Those players put the work in, but they also come to work with chips on their shoulder. They believe they’re better, and in many cases they prove it.
Pierce has always believed in his talent, but he didn’t have the track record to back it up until the Celtics won the championship in 2008. In another of the unique circumstances of Paul Pierce, when he finally did win, he was partially overshadowed by the arrivals of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Garnett’s defensive intensity was the face of that that team. Allen’s shooting finished a lot of games. Pierce was just the guy who’d been there all along.
But one thing that was evident having covered those bad teams before the arrivals of Garnett and Allen — and having covered the championship in 2008 — is that Pierce never stopped being the team’s leader. When the Celtics were bad, Pierce made himself accountable to the media before every game, answering questions as to when the team might — if ever — turn it around. When they became good, Pierce stepped out of the spotlight so as not to hurt the feelings of his new superstar teammates. He shared the podium with Garnett, and he focused less on his image in the media. But he never stepped down from his leadership role. He recognized that he needed to lead differently Instead of asking for the ball, he asked to guard Bryant in the second half of Game 5 of the 2008 Finals.
“Paul had a chance to leave us when we were bad,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “And instead of moaning that he wanted to go to a championship team, he stayed. And he said, ‘I simply want to be a Celtic, and I trust that we’re going to win a title some day.’ He had no reason to believe that, at that time.”
Because it had never worked with Pierce, fans had no reason to believe that an assemblage of star players would bring a championship. But Pierce bought into the New Big Three so much that he put aside his ego and dropped his shot attempts from 18.1 to 13.7 per game. His scoring average dipped below 20 points for the first time since his sophomore NBA season. His field goal percentage of .464 was the second-highest of his career. The Celtics won the title, and Pierce — the selfish superstar — did everything that was asked of him. By doing so, he also deferred some of the credit.
“I wish people talked about his loyalty more,” said Rivers. “I do think it’s special that Paul Pierce decided that he wanted to be a Celtic for his life. And I think that’s pretty cool. In this day and time, in any sport, I think that’s special.”
Special is probably a good word for Pierce. Unlike Bird and Russell and Havlicek, Pierce has rarely been considered the best. So far, history has worked against Pierce. In time, like a step-back jumper from the right elbow, history may be on his side.