According to ESPN Boston, along with a slew of other Boston media outlets, Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics have finally reached a verbal agreement on a new four-year, fully guaranteed contract, worth upwards of $60 million. Free agents such as Pierce can officially sign with teams beginning this Thursday, July 8.
So, it's time to beg the question and debate a little bit. What do we think of this deal? Is it all good? Is it all bad? Or, like many things, is it somewhere in between? I'm going to go with Option C.
While we now know all four years of the deal are guaranteed, we have yet to see exactly how much money Pierce will make in each of the next four seasons. Terms of the deal have not been disclosed, and even the total value of the contract has ranged from $60 million (initial reports) to $62 million (more recent reports).
While the deal might be a frontloaded one, meaning Pierce will make more more money at the start of the contract and less money towards the end, for the sake of this argument, let's assume the money is spread out evenly over the four years, meaning Pierce will make roughly $15 million per year.
The Good Side
I think it's fair to say Pierce has at least two more quality seasons - similar to the type that we've become accustomed to - left in him, if not more. While his scoring has dropped off somewhat over the last three seasons - compared to his first nine with the Celtics - that statistical drop clearly has much more to do with Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and an emerging Rajon Rondo now being a part of the equation, as opposed to it serving as evidence that Pierce is on the decline.
If the Celtics had never brought in Allen and Garnett, would Pierce have still averaged over 20 points per game these past three seasons? Considering he averaged 19.6 points per game back in 2007-2008, 20.5 points per game in 2008-2009, and 18.3 points per game this past season, I'd say yes. When you consider the fact that the offense would have most likely still been run through Pierce (along with an emerging Al Jefferson), and all of the extra shot attempts Pierce would have gotten without two other significant offensive forces beside him, it actually seems harder to believe he wouldn't have averaged over 20 points per game these past three years.
When you think about the 18.3 points per game average this past season, you have to take into account the various injuries Pierce battled throughout the season, the lack of a consistent offensive rhythm that surely resulted from fighting through those injuries, and that Pierce played in a handful of games amidst that stretch of maladies that he probably shouldn't have been playing in (Pierce admitted that he rushed back and should have taken more time to recuperate). Furthermore, even with the various injuries cramping Pierce's style over the course of the year, he still managed to tally career-highs in field goal percentage (47.2 percent), three-point field goal percentage (41.4 percent), and free throw percentage (85.2 percent).
While Pierce might have ultimately taken less money with this new deal, it certainly won't be enough to save the Celtics considerable salary cap space, especially over the course of the next two seasons, but it will certainly help the team save a boatload in luxury tax dollars. Right now it appears as though the Celtics aim to compete for another title next season, and most likely the following season as well. Taking advantage of the Bird Rights of Pierce, Ray Allen, and Tony Allen, re-signing them all (hopefully in the case of Ray and Tony), exceeding the salary cap, and then going forward with the Mid-Level Exception, Veteran's Minimum, and (again, hopefully), Rasheed Wallace's contract, appears to be the best way for the Celtics to still remain competitive these next few seasons.
The alternative would have been to renounce the Bird Rights of every player that qualified for them, ending up with roughly $16-$20 million or so in cap space, and then using that money to hopefully lure Big Name Free Agent X (most likely a guy like Joe Johnson. But given the fact that Johnson has all but agreed to a $119 million deal with the Hawks, I'm not so sure he would have been to keen on a mere shade of that from Boston) to town. However, keep in mind that the Celtics would have had to not only draw Big Name Free Agent X to Boston, but they would have used the majority of that $16-$20 million to sign him, leaving roughly $4-$5 million or so to fill out the remaining seven mandatory roster spots (league rules state that a team needs at least 12 active players and one inactive player), without exceeding the salary cap. And, had they cleared enough room to get below the salary cap, the Celtics would have lost out on the Mid-Level Exception, seeing as only teams who exceed the salary cap qualify for it. So, to reiterate, the Celtics would have had to sign eight players using $16-$20 million, with the majority of that going to one single player. Keep in mind the fact that the Celtics would not be able to exceed the salary cap in this scenario, with the exception being use of the Veteran's Minimum.
I point all of this out to hopefully make the point that, in my opinion, the 2010-2011 Boston Celtics would be better off contending for a championship with Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins (upon his already anticipated return), Tony Allen, Glen Davis, Avery Bradley, MLE guy or multiple MLE guys (depending on how it's used), and a few Veteran's Minimum guys, as opposed to Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Big Name Free Agent X, Kendrick Perkins (upon return), Glen Davis, Avery Bradley, and a random collection of Veteran's Minimum guys.
To me, the first option seems better, as you'd basically be substituting Big Name Free Agent X for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen with the second option. I know Johnson's younger than both of them, but can he alone account for the production that both Pierce and Ray bring to the table, even at their current, respective ages? I personally find that hard to believe.
I suppose you have to consider how rare it is to be able to compete for a championship in the NBA, or any professional sports league, for that matter. Realistically, entering each season, how many teams stand a legitimate chance at contending? Five? Six? Sure, the Celtics have been right up there the last three seasons (we're potentially talking about three straight Finals appearances had KG not gone down in '09), but a drop off of any type of magnitude sinks you far lower amongst the league's elite than some might realize. Are you better off going to war with Rajon Rondo, Joe Johnson, and Kevin Garnett as your "Big Three", or Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett as your "Aging, But Ultimately Still Capable of Getting The Job Done Formidable Four"? I suppose I'm stuck on the notion that renouncing Paul and Ray and pursuing Big Name Free Agent X would have been a step backward in terms of contending, and given the stature of Garnett's contract, as well as what Big Name Free Agent X's would have been, the Celtics would still be facing salary cap issues over the next few seasons.
The Bad Side
While paying Pierce roughly $15 million per season for the next two might seem like a bargain, the critics are sure to harp on paying him that same amount (again, it could be less if the deal is frontloaded. It would actually make more sense for the Celtics to do it this way, since they'll be sure to be over the salary cap for at least the next two seasons anyway) for the final two years. If Pierce's production begins to slow down entering the third year of this deal, $15 million might not seem like such a bargain anymore, especially given the fact that Garnett's contract will have finally come off the books, and there would be an outside chance for the Celtics to finally do some re-tooling.
As of right now, when Pierce and the C's make this deal official in writing, the only contracts the Celtics will have on the books heading into the 2012-2013 season will be Rondo's and Pierce's, which should come to a total of roughly $26 million. A new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) will be negotiated upon at the end of next season, and rumors are already springing up that it will favor the owners, meaning the salary cap could be much lower compared to the projected figure of $56 million we'll most likely see for next season. If the salary cap is indeed lowered significantly, the value of players' contracts will also drop, but if the Celtics are already sporting $26 million in salary between just two players, they'll most likely be battling the salary cap once again. So, could the Celtics be taking a big risk by signing Pierce to a deal like this, given the fact that his production could fall off in a few seasons? Sure. But, if they are in fact able to compete for a championship these next two seasons, it should be well worth it.
This is the issue with trying to predict the future in matters like these. Realistically, we can't be sure of the salary cap after next season, and I'm certainly not accounting for all of the other deals that will certainly come over the course of Pierce's new deal, especially in the final two years of it when KG's contract is up. Both the contracts of Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins expire at the end of next season, and, assuming Perk rehabilitates accordingly and Davis continues to progress, it's not outlandish to think the Celtics will want to bring both of those players back.
The point is, with so much of the future up in the air, there's an even greater need to focus on the present, in my opinion at least. And with that in mind, the best chance at competing for another championship, as detailed above, comes with re-signing Pierce to this new deal, along with both the Allens and some other free agents. Winning a championship is rare (see 1987-2007), but by bringing back Pierce and co. and adding some extra talent along the way, the Celtics should still be capable of at least competing for one these next few seasons.