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Return Of The Truth - A Good Thing?

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paul3.jpgIt has been a long time since we’ve had any reason to talk at length about Paul Pierce. Now he’s on his way back from a foot injury that has sidelined him for a lot longer than was originally expected. A lot has changed since he last played, due mostly to the current 14 game losing streak. Long gone are visions of taking advantage of a weak Atlantic Division to make some noise in the playoffs. The fans and maybe even the team are much more focused on taking advantage of ping pong balls to make some noise in the draft. So, the question remains, is Paul Pierce coming back a good thing?

If you are looking purely at losing as many games as possible, then the clear answer is no. Adding a guy that is at the very least one of the top 15 players in the league is not going to help you lose games. But provided he is healthy, what can you do? If you hold him out on purpose, you risk several things. For one thing, you could find yourself under more scrutiny than you’d like from David Stern. For another thing, since Pierce is a competitor, you might risk angering him. You don’t want to tell your best player that you are losing on purpose, no matter what the long term potential benefits are. Of course, if you believe in such things, there’s also the whole “karma” theory that it will come back to bite you when the lottery happens. I don’t subscribe to that myself, but my family is full of fishermen and sailors, so as a general rule I try not to tempt fate too much.

Regardless, I find it very, very hard to believe that the team would hold a healthy Pierce out of the lineup. On the flipside, however, I could envision a not-quite healthy enough Paul Pierce convincing the team to play before he is 100% healthy. And that scares me just a little.

We know he’s a competitor and he’s played through pain on many occasions. He barely took any time to come back from getting stabbed. He’s lost teeth and played the next night. He played through elbow pain last year, and the list goes on. The very nature of his game is to drive to the hole and pick up fouls and get to the line. Getting banged around as much as he does, it is a wonder he’s been as healthy as he has been for this long.

In fact, one has to wonder if and when this might start catching up to him. Now that he’s going to be entering his 30’s, will he still be able to bounce back like he did in his 20’s? The thing that scares me the most about this current injury is the somewhat nebulous nature of it. It isn’t a clean break and it isn’t a sprain, it may be a “stress reaction” or maybe it became a full stress fracture and that is why it took so long to return from. I’m no doctor, but whatever it is, it sounds like the kind of thing that needs lots of time and no activity to heal. He’s had lots of time, but I wonder if he would feel like he’s healthy and ready to play before he actually is. I just don’t want him playing on it and making the injury worse or perhaps overcompensating and injuring something else. In short, I don’t want to see him doing something that might jeopardize his career.

Yet, I think he would risk that to prove himself. He hears what we hear. He knows that people are questioning the truth of his injury because of the “tanking” theory. Similar questions surrounded Vince Carter when he went into shutdown-mode on the Toronto Raptors, and as a result he’s never regained the respect he once had. Pierce might want to come back to prove he isn’t faking the injury and prove that he’s a competitor. He might want to quiet the talk about the Celtics tanking because he respects the history of this team and values his teammates’ reputations. All admirable reasons to come back provided he’s healthy enough to not hurt himself further.

Of course, one thing you have to wonder in all of this is exactly how much this is going to change things in the win column. Right now we have the 2nd worst record in the league. The team has played 36 46 of the 82 games on the schedule and figure to play (and lose) a few more before Pierce is actually ready to enter the lineup. At its very best, this team is maybe a .500 level team even at full strength. So simple math tells us that the most we could win on the season is about 33, matching our record from last year. With that record, we got the 7th pick in the draft. Frankly, I doubt that we can even manage a .500 record. So at the end of the year, we’re talking about the difference of a few ping pong balls.

paul2.jpgConsider too that Pierce is also going to need to get into shape. Foot injuries don’t let athletes stay in shape because they can’t do the same cardio work that they are used to doing. So when he takes the floor for the first time, he’s going to be slow and winded (maybe not Wally-slow, but you get the picture). Once he gets a rhythm for himself, he’ll then need to get into a rhythm with his teammates who have had to do things without him for all these weeks. There is a very good chance that they will fall back into old habits of standing around waiting for him to do something as the shot clock ticks down.

You also have to remember how much has changed since he went down. At the time he was injured, Sebastian Telfair was the starting point guard, Tony Allen was just starting to step it up, and we had barely anyone to play center. This will take time to gel.

Still, there has to be some silver linings in this and I have a few. The team is going to need to learn how to play with Paul Pierce again if it expects to rely on him to be their leader next year. The plan seems to be to develop a few young players (like Jefferson, and West), add some players in the offseason (via the draft and trades), and surround Pierce with a better team for next year and beyond. All of that revolves around making sure the pieces we have now work well with Paul Pierce. We’ve had our time to learn how good the kids can be when given the minutes and forced to be “the man.” Now we need to see how well they compliment the guy that we are really counting on to be “The Man.”

I’m very interested in seeing how well Pierce plays with Al Jefferson. I’m hopeful to see Pierce on the court with a Rondo/West backcourt. At times, I’m interested in seeing how Pierce plays along side Gerald Green. There is much to be learned from this year that can benefit us a great deal in the future.

In addition, I think the injury has been a blessing in disguise in more ways than just getting ping pong balls. If you assume (as I do) that we were going to struggle this year with or without Pierce in the lineup, then imagine how frustrated he’d be at this point in the year. I could see the weight of the losses mounting on his shoulders and I could just as clearly see the vultures start to circle. There would be plenty of theories from Marc Stein and Marty Burns and others about why the Celtics should trade Pierce now before he snaps and asks for a trade. There would be a lot of discussion about the Bulls, Clippers, and others creating packages to entice the Ainge into making a move. As it is, we’ve seen Bill Reynolds make a report that the Celtics are shopping Pierce (which the more I think about, the less I believe). But that’s just one whisper. If Pierce were healthy all year, it would probably be a deafening roar by now.

Coming back and concentrating on getting healthy and helping his young teammates learn how to win is going to be a nice challenge for Paul. So in that respect, I see this as a good thing.

I see this season playing out with some ups and downs the rest of the way. A difficult February schedule will not let the team pick up too much steam but once the team rallies around Pierce, he will push them up over the top and get some wins. I could still see a deadline deal offloading Wally, but you never know how he’ll be playing or what Ainge can get for him. By the end of the year the team will be mathematically eliminated with several weeks left and at that time we might see the vets sat down for the most part anyway.

So fear not lottery lovers. There is hope for your ping pong dreams yet. And for those needing a few wins and some good basketball played by the boys in green, sit back and enjoy watching a great player and a great Celtic play.