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|If the C's break up their big three, will Paul Pierce be forced to leave the only NBA team he's known?|
The Boston Celtics are nearing the crossroads, and if you look ahead you'll see Paul Pierce standing at the intersection of sentiment and practicality.
It's Pierce's 14th season in the green jersey, the only one he's ever worn. (OK, there have been alternates like the gold-trimmed unis the Celtics wore in Los Angeles this week, but you know what I mean.) Only John Havlicek has scored more points for the Celtics. Pierce was the NBA Finals MVP for the franchise's 17th championship.
All of that should bring a certain entitlement, the right go out on his terms. If he wants to retire as a Celtic, he should. If the team shifts into a post-Big Three rebuilding mode, he should feel free to spend his waning years with a team that's closer to winning a championship.
Pierce, 34, has the longest contract among the Celtics' over-30 set, with two years remaining at $16.8 million and $15.3 million. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are free agents after the season. Rajon Rondo, the 26-year-old point guard with three seasons and $36 million left on his contract, is the Celtics' only long-term obligation who costs more than $2 million a season.
But when I asked Pierce if he wanted to end his career as a Celtic, there wasn't much passion in his response. It's probably a cautionary reflex that comes with being in the NBA long enough to see every possible scenario unfold.
I've heard it put out there that if Danny Ainge gets the opportunity, [a trade] can happen. So I'm not in a situation like Steve Nash where it's only if he requests it. That wasn't said to me. That's what it is.” -- Paul Pierce
"You ask anybody in the league who's been somewhere as long as I have, why wouldn't they [want to stay]?" Pierce said. "But at the end of the day I know it's a business. There's only so much I control.
"Shaq's been traded; everybody's been traded. I don't know if anything is in anybody's hands.
"I've heard it put out there that if Danny Ainge gets the opportunity, [a trade] can happen. So I'm not in a situation like Steve Nash where it's only if he requests it. That wasn't said to me. That's what it is."
Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck said he is too consumed by the current season to consider the big decisions the organization faces in the future. If it's any benefit to Pierce, Grousbeck referenced a Red Sox outfielder and two Celtic legends in comparison to Pierce's situation.
"I've always said, when I grew up it was Carl Yastrzemski, it was Havlicek and [Dave] Cowens," Grousbeck said.
All three played in Boston their entire careers.
As for the current core group of Celtics, "I'm sentimental about these guys," Grousbeck said. "We won a championship together, we're playing really well. I love this team.
"We'll see what happens. We love Paul, he loves us. It's been a great run."
If they haven't reached the finish line yet, they can surely see the tape from here. Doc Rivers acknowledges the team he coaches does not warrant odds-on favorite status, but he feels compelled to remind anyone who'll listen that "you're 0-0 when the playoffs start" and "you just never know." The Celtics as much as anyone should benefit from a playoffs devoid of back-to-back-to-back games and other quirks brought on by the lockout-shortened regular season.
Still, their best-case scenario is extending -- or squeezing, or extracting -- more than sustaining. This team is not built to last. And if the Celtics are to avoid the type of post-contender drought they endured in the 1990s, they will have to make trades and/or find lottery luck.
For all of the Celtics' championship-rich tradition, there's a scarce track record of free-agent signings. Among Boston's core quadrant, Pierce and Rondo were drafted, Allen and Garnett were acquired by trades. You haven't heard a peep from Dwight Howard even though the Celtics could easily free up enough cap space to offer Howard a max contract this summer. That's probably a greater reflection of Howard and his priorities than an indictment of the Celtics, but the next big free agent to buck this trend will be the first.
Pierce still has value, be it to the Celtics or another team. Sure, there's some dropoff: he hasn't been a 20-points-per-game scorer since 2008-09, and his 43 percent field goal shooting is his lowest since 2003-04. But he can still score big baskets. Ask the Clippers -- or better yet the Knicks, who haven't had a reason to feel good since Pierce hit an end-of-regulation 3 that denied them a victory last week.
And he brings the intangibles of experience and leadership as well. In Los Angeles on Monday he was working with mostly younger players before the game against the Clippers, engaging in a game of one-on-one battles. Simple rules: one possession with the ball, one possession on defense, then rotate out.
Pierce kept it lively, with an ongoing stream of trash talk. "Just trying to keep 'em motivated," he explained.
Seeing him so engaged it wasn't too hard to imagine him passing on his wisdom to a group of younger players during a rebuilding phase. Later, I asked if he would mind sticking around through a rehab project.
"I probably wouldn't be part of the plans, if that's what it is," Pierce said.
It's not about sentiment, and it's not up to him. That was my takeaway from Pierce.