Paul Pierce Saved the Celtics
When the Boston Celtics selected Paul Pierce in the first round of the 1998 NBA Draft, they were in a post-Larry Bird period of dormancy. They hadn’t won a playoff series in six years and had failed to record a winning record for five seasons. The most decorated franchise in league history was at its lowest point. Pierce ended up playing the leading role in its resurrection. Eighteen years later, it’s only fitting he retire as a member of the organization.
Pierce said Wednesday he plans to sign a contract with the team next summer before he officially calls it quits. The 38-year-old forward announced recently in a Players’ Tribune post he’ll be spending his final season with the Los Angeles Clippers. Doc Rivers, who coached Pierce in Boston for nine years and is now in charge of the Clippers, said last month he thought this would be the right move for Pierce to make. “Paul’s a Celtic,” he said. “So when he retires he’s got to retire as a Celtic. I don’t think anyone disagrees with me.”
In 15 seasons with the Celtics, Pierce averaged 21.8 points per game and was the captain of the 2007-08 championship team. Alongside Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, he led the Celtics to three conference finals appearances in five years—including another NBA Finals in 2010 against the Los Angeles Lakers, which they lost in seven games.
It’s true that acquiring Garnett and Allen propelled the Celtics to championship contention. But they wouldn’t have been in a position to build the “New Big Three” without Pierce’s loyalty. After finishing first in the Atlantic Division during the 2004-05 campaign, the Celtics bottomed out over the next two years, winning a total of 57 games. Many stars in the league in Pierce’s position would’ve probably demanded a trade. After all, he had been with the team for nearly a decade and it didn’t seem as if they were on the precipice of respectability—never mind greatness. But Pierce stayed onboard.
His patience was reportedly close to running out in June 2007, when the Celtics failed to swing a major trade before the draft. But then general manager Danny Ainge acquired Allen on draft night, which paved the way for him to land Garnett, who had rebuffed the Celtics earlier in the summer.
There was no feeling out period between the three stars. The team took a preseason trip to Italy, where the players famously built their Ubuntu bond. That selflessness allowed Pierce, Garnett, and Allen to play as a collective unit and worry about winning games more than their stat lines.
If it weren’t for injuries, the “Big Three” probably would’ve won more than one championship. The starting lineup of Rajon Rondo-Allen-Pierce-Garnett-Kendrick Perkins never lost a playoff series in three years they spent together. But the ’08 championship run was the only time all five were healthy. Garnett missed the entirety of the 2009 playoffs due to a knee injury and Perkins was inactive during Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. There’s a good chance Pierce could have had two more rings on his fingers.
It’s difficult to pick out a singular highlight for Pierce’s tenure with the Celtics, but his MVP performance during the 2008 Finals is at the top of the list. He was incredible in that series, suffering a seemingly serious injury in Game 1 only to return a couple of minutes later to score 15 points in the third quarter and lead the team to victory. Coming out in a wheelchair may have taken the theatrics a bit too far, but it was a hallmark move of a champion.
Pierce’s most impressive game that postseason, however, may have actually come in Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He went off for 41 points, out-dueling a much younger LeBron James. It took two more attempts for James to best Pierce in the playoffs. Today, James credits Pierce for helping to turn him into the player he is today. “Obviously [Pierce] gets a Cliff note or a couple notes in my book as far as guys that helped me get over the hump or kept me where I was at the time,” James said about Pierce in 2015, via Cleveland.com. “I knew I had to become much better individually. He’s one of those guys.”
Over the last four years, Pierce has taken on an elder statesman role as he’s bounced around Brooklyn, Washington, and Los Angeles. Celtics fans saw him make the turn into that leader firsthand.
Pierce isn’t the greatest player in franchise history, but for a generation of Celtics fans who missed out on Bird, he embodies what the organization is all about. His mark will be left on the Celtics for several years to come, too, considering the haul of first-round picks he and Garnett commanded from the Nets in 2013.
Pierce didn’t just save the Celtics from dormancy; he brought them back to the top. It’s appropriate that the package they received for him may do it again.