It can seem impossible to compare Paul Pierce to his contemporaries, due to a style of play that is just so different from his peers. He's a different animal than the LeBron's or the Kobe's or the Shaq's -- players who dominated the previous decade. On Tuesday night Pierce moved past Celtics Immortalis Larry Bird into second place on the Celtics' all-time scoring list. As Jeff mentioned earlier in the week, this milestone sort of snuck up on everyone, because Pierce's legacy as a basketball player is somehow understated in spite of his best efforts to create the contrary. Throughout his entire 13-year career, Pierce has consistently put up the same stellar numbers every year, usually in the 22-6-4 range. Those aren't eye-popping averages, but when a player does them for over a decade it becomes impressive. All of Pierce's impressive moments on the basketball court came over a period of time -- like the 19-point fourth quarter against the Nets in the 2002 Eastern Finals. His career highlight reel isn't riddled with tomahawk dunks or ruthless blocks. Instead it would be filled with dagger jump shots and three pointers, a play that perfectly sums up how Pierce fits in with the rest of the NBA pantheon during his professional tenure.
Pierce is not by any means a "pretty" basketball player. He lacks the fluidity of the premier stars of the past decade. He can't soar over other human beings, he can't seamlessly execute a fallaway jumper with finesse rather than will, and his jump shot is less picturesque than it is gawky. Pierce is not slow, but he's not fast. He's not unathletic, but he's not mercurial in his movements. A Pierce jump shot is slower than the average jump shot, and a Pierce free throw looks like he's shooting on a tightrope. Paul Pierce is so hard to rank against his peers because he's just not like them. He can score at will and in buckets, but for some reason it's not done the same way Iverson or McGrady did it.
What's the difference between Pierce and everyone else in the NBA? The fact that he's more cerebral than almost anyone out there, and can overpower players more athletically gifted. He's always in the right spot, he's always cutting the necessary corners, and always mapping out the best way to do things. As his legs got older, he became a better shooter from outside. He adapted his game to his own abilities, something that should be commended. He's not as good talent-wise as Kobe or LeBron, but always competes with (if not out-plays) them. He outlasted guys like McGrady and Iverson because he learned to evolve, whereas they didn't (McGrady's never been blessed with a clean bill of health, but his general disdain of coming of the bench has highlighted his half-decade long demise).
It's also difficult to compare him to the Celtics' who proceeded him. One could say that he's had a better career than Kevin McHale or Bob Cousy, but it's a stretch to compare him to Bill Russell or John Havlicek or Larry Bird. Even in the midst of those five, he doesn't seem like he belongs. Maybe that's because it's difficult to compare those of the present to those that are held nostalgically in the past, but that's my feeling. I have trouble saying he's better than Cousy, a guy who revolutionized the point guard position. But I know if Pierce played Cousy one-on-one during both of their primes, Cousy would be constantly falling to the parquet floor. Pierce doesn't yet seem like he deserves to mentioned with all those greats, but he does. If you're one of those people who are obsessed with championships, and are annoyed that Pierce only won a single title (in which he was awarded a Finals MVP for), just remember that for the majority of his career he was the single driving force in the Celtics' relevancy, and that without him the Celtics would have likely been cultivating Top-5 draft picks.
He's done this:
He doesn't have the physical gifts that his other brilliant opponents do. But he fits right in with them because of what he can do with the gifts he has.
Paul Pierce was once stabbed eleven times in the face, neck, and back, and then had a bottle smashed over his head. This happened on September 25, 2000, and Pierce almost died because of the injuries he suffered. He was back a month later and was the only Boston Celtic to play in all 82 games. Does anyone else realize just completely insane and ridiculous that is? If that were me, I would still be hooked up to an iron lung and having a nurse give me sponge baths. Pierce was the victim of a crime that Martin Scorcese would dream of, and came back a month later. This just defines Paul Pierce as a human being. I'm not one to wax poetically about stupid things like "grit" or "heart", but my God, how can any of that not mean anything? It makes sense that Paul is always at the center of comebacks after remembering his own personal comeback. This doesn't mean that if a basketball player wants to be a great crunch-time player (however you want to define that), they need to be stabbed in the freaking face. It just proves that Paul doesn't give an inch when dealing with adversity.
That matters for something, right?
Follow the author @brendohare