Thursday, July 8, 2004
Is Ainge telling the Truth?
By Peter May
Special to ESPN.com
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about The Truth? He's not going anywhere. Probably. Maybe. Who knows?
Danny Ainge, the lad entrusted with bringing the Boston Celtics back to relevance, says he has no intention of trading his best player, despite countless rumors that might contradict that. Just this week, Ainge said he wanted to put any trade talk to rest, telling the Boston Globe, "I have absolutely no intention of trading Paul Pierce." There, does that settle it for you?
Can Pierce now buy instead of rent? Well, it wasn't all that long ago, in fact just about a year ago, that Ainge said something very similar about Antoine Walker. Shortly after taking over control of the Celtics, and well aware that his anti-'Toine comments were part of the public record, courtesy of TNT, Ainge said he would not make a single phone call with the intention of trading Walker. (He later chuckled when told that he still had approximately five ways of trading Walker without looking like a fibber.)
We all know what happened. Walker went to Dallas and the Celtics eventually went to utter irrelevancy. Their coach resigned. The team back-doored into the postseason in a way that would make Michael Jackson's moonwalk look like a relay leg. During the playoffs, the Celtics registered test-pattern numbers on Boston television, outdrawn by auto racing pre-race shows.
And through it all, as the lone remaining symbol of their brief rise from the depths, was Pierce. He was not a happy man through all of this and one wondered if he wanted to stick around.
Pierce is, as Ainge duly noted, the Celtics' most valuable asset. And unless a starting five of Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Mark Blount, Ricky Davis and Chucky Atkins excites you, then the best -- some might say only -- way to upgrade would be to deal Pierce.
But there are two problems with that scenario: The Celtics, if Ainge is to be believed, are disinclined to deal Pierce. And, you have to wonder, what exactly could Pierce fetch? There was talk between the Celtics and the Bulls prior to the draft, with Pierce's name in the chatter. But what the Celtics wanted would have left Chicago with a starting five led by Jannero Pargo, Linton Johnson III and Paul Shirley. End of discussion.
Pierce has been fighting an image problem since the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis. He and Baron Davis were widely seen as the two problem children on the U.S. team that finished a mind-boggling sixth. Was Pierce unfairly trashed? He was among the team leaders in scoring, rebounds and assists. But one with a close knowledge of the Indianapolis situation said, flatly, "He was disruptive."
And look who USA Basketball has turned to to round out its ever-evolving roster? Carmelo Anthony? LeBron James? Pierce has more gravitas, not to mention accolades, then the two of them put together. But USA Basketball so soured on Pierce -- and most of the selectors are NBA guys -- that it never gave him a moment's notice. Ditto for Davis, who was bypassed for that paradigm of unselfish players, Stephon Marbury.
So Pierce's stature around the league may not be quite what he -- and others -- might think it would be. Then Ainge tossed some kerosene on the fire last month in a pre-draft interview with the Boston Globe in which he discussed Pierce's situation and status.
"I would not say Paul's a superstar," Ainge said. "My classification of a superstar is different than a lot of people's classification of a superstar. Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett are the three superstars we have in our league today. Paul's a star. He's a perennial All-Star player. I don't classify that as a superstar. I think a superstar is a franchise player that year in and year out has all the characteristics to carry a championship team."
Leaving aside the reasoning for saying that, what exactly does that mean? Until this season, Garnett's teams had never made it out of the first round. Pierce's team had made it to the conference finals in his first venture into the playoffs in 2001. Shaq has been on teams that have been broomed from the playoffs a number of times -- and came very close to getting swept again in this year's NBA Finals.
But Ainge is right about Pierce not being a superstar. Pierce is a volume scorer who, in the past, had to do too much simply to make his team competitive. One of new head coach Doc Rivers' main goals is to lessen Pierce's load and make his best player trust his teammates. Pierce had a hard time doing that last season; then again, look at his teammates.
So if Ainge isn't touting his best player as a franchise player, is anyone else? Given the receptions of USA Basketball and, at least, the Bulls, we can answer with an unequivocal "no." But after what the Pistons did, now every team will be re-assessing, thinking it need not necessarily have that one, great player, only a collection of good players who happen to believe in each other, play well together and are marvelously coached.
Toward that end, Ainge brought in Rivers to be the coach. That was construed to be a coup, because Rivers was thought to A) have wanted more power than he now has and B) wanted to coach a team with a chance to win. Rivers and Ainge then convinced the heretofore reluctant and resistant Blount to re-sign. They had said all along they were confident they could do it, but a lot of people -- including yours truly -- thought that Blount would select a team with more stability and a better chance to win right away.
|Paul Pierce remains a key piece of Danny Ainge's master plan ... for now.|
"I believe we have two special pieces, in Doc and Paul," Ainge said. "I want to see them grow together. I believe that relationship will help make the Celtics an exciting and competitive franchise in the future."
It's also not in Pierce's nature to be a leader, at least in terms of getting in teammates' faces and being a locker-room presence. Walker could do that. Eric Williams could do that. Once those two departed, the Celtics' locker room looked like the streets of Mogadishu. A re-signed Blount should have more clout and so, by his presence and the blessing of his boss, should Rivers.
In Pierce, the Celtics have a guy who can score. They have a guy who plays and plays hurts. They have a guy who, up until the chaos of last season, was content to be a Celtic and honored to be its captain.
Ainge said Celtics fans should get accustomed to seeing Pierce in green and white. At the same time, Ainge has acknowledged that no player, including Pierce, is untouchable. And there is no doubt, despite the varying views of him around the league, that he is the Celtics' most prized possession.
Chances are, Ainge and Rivers will want to see how this thing plays out. Pierce, Blount and Walter McCarty are the only holdovers from the team Ainge inherited. Ainge re-signed the last two. He hasn't had a contract issue with Pierce and won't, if he chooses, for another four years.
But if Ainge also senses that his team needs a jolt and can only make that happen by dealing Pierce, he will not hesitate to do so. That has been his history in Boston. Just ask Walker.
||Paul's a star. He's a perennial All-Star player. I don't classify that as a superstar. I think a superstar is a franchise player that year in and year out has all the characteristics to carry a championship team. ”
||— Danny Ainge
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.