Appreciating GPA part 2: Paul Pierce

Intro: Next up is the Captain, aaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnddddd the Truth, Paul Pierce.  Pierce is the member of the current team that has paid the most Celtic dues, and thus gets the most Celtic love.  Pierce has spent his entire career in green, playing excellent basketball with very little supporting talent and doing his best to keep the Cs on the map almost single-handedly.  When this current team disbands, Pierce is the one that will have a guaranteed place in the VIP section of Celtics lore.  He has earned the right to be the Captain by himself, and to have his name called last in the intros.  And the entire country is starting to get a glimpse of what Celtics fans have known for years: Pierce is one of the best swingmen of this generation, and can look any of his competition directly in the eye and tell them he’s the best…then go out and make his case on the court.

Skills: Paul Pierce is in the argument as the best pure scorer in Celtics history.  Let that marinate for a minute as you consider just who he is competing with for that crown, then consider that he is also so much more than that.  Pierce is one of the best all-around wings in the game.  His size and strength make him a strong rebounder, and one of the best at drawing fouls/finishing shots that the game has.  Pierce is also very good off the dribble, able to use his handle to patiently get to the rim at will using angles/strength/fakes to keep his opponent off balance.  Forget about switching on the pick-and-roll, as Pierce will ruthlessly take advantage of the mismatch EVERY time.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him miss that back-to-the-free-throw-line-then-turnaround-jumper over a PG that was unlucky enough to be switched onto him.

Pierce is also a good passer, able to set up his teammates off the dribble-drive for spoon-fed finishes at the rim or wide open jumpers.  Pierce has always been an underrated defender as well, with excellent physical tools and tenacity that sometimes had to be subsumed on that end of the court so that he could preserve energy to carry an un-talented team on offense.  But when locked in, Pierce can handle just about any wing in the NBA 1-on-1 and make them have to work for it.  Finally, Pierce is an ultra competitor with more toughness than most and the will to always want the ball late.  Add that up, and you’ve got a total package that very few NBA swingmen can top.

Team accomplishments/teammates: In his 9 pre-07 seasons, Pierce’s teams compiled a record of 321 – 385, a deceptively low mark due to his lack of teammate support.  Over his 9 years, only twice did Pierce play next to an All Star (Antoine Walker in ’02 and ’03).  The teams that Pierce played on tended to be Pierce/Walker, then a big drop off to role players (or, later on, Pierce by himself and then a dropoff to role players).  Despite that, Pierce’s teams still made the playoffs in 4 of his 9 seasons.

Pierce’s best team was the ’02 squad that won 49 games and, led by Pierce and Walker went all the way to the ECF before losing to the Nets in 6.  That team did not have championship talent in any way, but Pierce willed that team through the playoffs by averaging 25 points, 9 boards and 4 assists with almost 3 combined steals/blocks per game.  The following season Pierce was even more incredible in the postseason, averaging 27 points, 9 boards and 7 assists with 3 combined steals/blocks in helping the team get to the 2nd round.

Stats and Awards:
Pre 2007 Pierce was a 5-time All Star, twice made All NBA team (3rd team in both ‘02 and ’03), and three times finished top-15 in MVP votes (best finish 11th in ’02 and ’03).  Pierce has 5 top-10 finishes in points/game (best 3rd in ’02), and led the league in total points in ’02.  Pierce has been a foul-shooting monster, with 6 top-10 finishes in free throws made and attempthed (including leading the NBA in ’03).  He has 5 top-10 finishes in steals, and was 2nd in steals/game in 2000.    He also has 3 top-10 finishes in 3-ptrs made.  In the advanced stats, Pierce has three top-10 finishes in PER (best 7th, ’03), was 10th in the league in Offensive Win Shares in ’05, was 4th in Defensive Win Shares in ’02, and has 2 top-10 finishes in Total Win Shares (best 5th, ’02).

Great Player Comparison:
For Pierce’s contemporaries, I chose 3 of the best swingmen of this generation: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter.  All four of this crew are do-everything scoring wings, descendants of the Jordan style of play.  Here is how their stats compare up through 2006-07, keeping in mind that Kobe and TMac entered the league 2 and 1 seasons before Pierce/Carter but were less productive early coming straight from HS.

Summary: Pierce leads the whole group in rebounds, threes, free throws made/attempted, and steals.  He is very competitive with the group in the other categories, including scoring in which he is only 1ppg behind Kobe for group lead.  Speaking of Kobe…
Kobe has become the standard bearer for swingmen in this generation, and we are all aware of the controversy Pierce caused last summer by saying that he was better than Kobe.  But really…was he wrong?  Head-to-head over their career, Pierce has played Kobe to a standstill.  Meanwhile, Dr. Dave Berri has some very interesting stances on Pierce vs. Kobe over their careers, based on his Wins Produced stat.  Here are a few links: Kobe myths, Pierce-vs-Kobe-vs-old-MJ, and Kobe myths playoffs edition.

These links tell us that, according to at least one advanced stat system, Pierce HAS been as good as Kobe Bryant through their careers.  And on top of that, Pierce has been BETTER than Kobe in the playoffs over their careers.  Take it as you will, but this should be food for thought for those that tried to make fun of The Captain for speaking his truth last summer.

Place on the 07-08 Celtics and beyond:

“Losses”: In a lot of ways, Pierce has had to change his game the least to accommodate the new Celtics order.  He definitely has given up a few shots per game, which means that his volume scoring has gone down.  But stylistically, he still is the primary wing offense initiator and has the green light to take over offensively when he chooses.  The Paul Pierce that I see now is the same one that I saw next to Walker in 01 in terms of style, he just has fewer shots but more substance.  He has taken his “losses” and turned tem into virtues, embracing unselfishness and setting up his teammates to take those shots instead.

“Gains”: In many ways, Pierce is also the Celtic that has gained the most so far through this 1.5 years.  With his Ring and Finals MVP, Pierce’s Celtics career is now validated and that combines with his numbers to put him in a VERY exclusive Celtics VIP club headed by Bill Russell and Larry Bird.  Also, with his Game 7 duel with LeBron and his big Finals moments Pierce has played his way into a national respect that he never had before.  On the court, the obvious gain for Pierce is that he is able to put more energy into defense since he doesn’t have to carry the offense which has made him a much better impact player despite the lesser numbers.  Also, he is more efficient on offense with career-bests in true shooting percentages and offensive rating over these last two seasons.  

Bottom line: Pierce is one of the best swing men of his generation, arguably the best pure scorer in Celtics history, and is more than just a “member of the Big Three” as the media tends to lump him…as Shaq told us, Paul Pierce is the mutha-*#$%## Truth!

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