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What Is Paul Pierce’s Optimum Option?

Paul Pierce Pumps Fists (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

BREAKING NEWS (6/30, 12:30 a.m.): It appears Pierce has decided to opt out. Read on to find out why he may have made this choice…

Americans do not like to be told what to do. We want options. Paul Pierce is an American. Paul Pierce has options.

Pierce’s options differ slightly from yours and mine. We decide nightly whether we want to watch reruns of “The Wire” or “Arrested Development” and then thank God we live in a country with freedom of choice (and that those two groundbreaking shows exist).

For Pierce, it’s whether to take a ridiculous amount of money next year or have an even more ridiculous amount of money spread over the next four or five years.

Pierce has a one-year player option on his current contract for $21.5 million for the 2010-11 season. If he opts out, it would be to seek a four- or five-year deal that would basically take him to retirement, save for a “hang on” year or two.

Pierce Not Going Anywhere

Pierce is presented with a tough choice but, as Avon Barksdale would say, “it’s all in the game.” One thing we can be fairly certain of, though, is that Pierce will be in a Boston Celtics uniform next year.

With a reduction in next year’s salary cap, projected to be between $50.4 and $53.6 for the 2010-11 NBA season, the Celtics have no choice but to forge ahead with the current group, save for a minor casualty or two. Rebuilding is not an option without total roster attrition, and I don’t think Kevin Garnett would be happy with a starting lineup that included Glen Davis and Tony Allen, their value off the bench notwithstanding.

Ainge is committed to winning next season, evidenced by his pursuit of free agent center Brad Miller. Much as the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Ron Artest to handle Pierce in a Finals meeting, Ainge knows he needs more length if they are to topple the Lakers in next year’s Finals.

If Ainge truly believes this Celtics group has another championship run in them, then Pierce has to be a big part of that puzzle.

Retaining Pierce’s (as well as Ray Allen’s) “Larry Bird Rights” allows the over-the-cap Celtics to re-sign him if he chooses to opt out. If Pierce opts in, well, we all know what that means.

Should he stay or should he go?

Why Opt Out?

Due to the upcoming expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (after the 2010-11 season) agents all across the NBA landscape are imploring their clients to take advantage of any opt-out clauses.

Desperately trying to reach their clients in casinos, strip clubs and high end car dealerships, the uncertainly of the labor negotiations has everybody spooked. The only thing the agents know for sure is during the last prolonged labor strife, the players got reamed.

Gone were the days of Garnett-like 6-year, $126 million contracts. Among other management-friendly revisions to the CBA, maximum contract parameters were set, as owners not only wanted cost certainty but they wanted to protect themselves from themselves and their reckless GMs. Baseball, you listening?

The NBAPA folded because, basically, guys who were making $5-6 million a year were living paycheck to paycheck and had to get back to work. Kenny Anderson had to sell one of his 85 cars for the love of Bentleys!

What does this have to do with Pierce? Jeff Schwartz, Pierce’s agent, knows that history is about to repeat itself and the last thing he wants is to have marquee free agent clients in the 2011 offseason.

If Pierce were to opt out, the main reason would be to take full advantage of the current, pre-new CBA market with the Celtics or another team. At this point, at least they know the rules of the game.

Pierce has repeatedly expressed a desire to retire as a Celtic. Despite joking he would pull a “Nomar” and sign a one-day contract and retire as a Celtic after leaving the team, I believe it is genuinely important to him to do so.

Right now, opting out of his contract is the best way to ensure that will happen. If Pierce takes the $21.5 million, he may find the Celtics are unable to re-sign him under the new CBA.  Maybe Bird Rights are done away with. Maybe the cap is lowered even more while max salaries for veterans go up.

Nobody knows. The new CBA market could be so bad that eschewing a year at $21.5 million now for a longer term deal would be a good decision. Take the long term money while it is there, Schwartz is telling Pierce.

It’s a dangerous game of poker. The looming new CBA is hanging on the NBA’s neck like a vulture, like impeding danger. Like Sonny Bunz over Tommy De Vitos’s shoulder with a bloated check while David Stern asks the NBAPA, “so I’m a clown?  I’m here to amuse you?”

Opting out this offseason and inking a four-year deal would bring Pierce to his 36th birthday with the Celtics and be his last big time free agent deal for his career. If he is sincere about spending the winter of his career with the Celtics, the path is strewn out before him.

Pierce and Schwartz are also keenly aware of all the LeBron-Wade-Bosh cap room that is floating around out there. With a further reduction in the cap with the new CBA an iron clad lock, now is the time to sew up a long term deal.

GMs are stupid and panicky and although Pierce may be initially averse to going to another team, when the New York Knicks or some other LeLoser in the LeBron LeLottery offers Pierce an insane max deal so as to save face with the fanbase, it may be too tempting to pass up.

Pierce must also consider external factors of which he has not control. We’ve already discussed rebuilding. Methinks that if Pierce even sniffs that word around the Celtics facilities, he will be out of there faster than Glen Davis on a plate of ribs. Faster than Brian Scalabrinie to the podium after an epic Finals victory.

Even if Ainge doesn’t rebuild, what if Doc Rivers leaves? Rivers has fostered a fun and communal basketball community where accountability and teamwork are paramount. Veterans like Pierce could easily bristle at a new coach and system.

Pierce is an attractive free agent. He has especially great value to other contenders trying to get over the hump. He brings championship experience and swagger, and in the end, the value Pierce has to the Celtics may be trumped by his value to an up-and-comer.

Opting out of his contract opens up even more options for Pierce. God Bless America.

Why Opt In?

Some $21.5 million is a dumpsterload of money to walk away from. Of course, for someone who has made upwards of $123 million in his career in salary alone, the stakes are a tad skewed.

If Pierce exercises the option the immediate and biggest benefit is obvious: the $21.5 million in his bank account. That’s a big stack of pancakes.

If Pierce opts in he would be returning to the defending conference champs but would they be able to make another run?

Let’s get all Peter Gammons-y with this. IF Pierce opts in and IF Ainge re-sings Ray Allen and IF it takes LeBron and LeSidekick a season to mesh in Chicago or wherever he lands, the Celtics would have to be considered favorites to return to the Finals.

Their main competition, the Cleveland Cavaliers, will be razed. The Orlando Magic still have Vince Carter so they will never go anywhere. Pierce, if he opts in, has to feel really good about the Celtics’ place in the NBA pecking order.

Mix in a Brad Miller and whatever Ainge can get for Rasheed Wallace’s “retiring” contract, and the Celtics will be rested, re-dyed and ready to work.

There is also a flip side to the affect of the looming new CBA. Owners and GMs are aware of what happened last time as well. If this is the case, wouldn’t it lead to a tentative market where only young, sure thing superstars like LeBron, Wade and Bosh get high value contract while veterans and bench guys get treated like detritus?

Unless they are getting one of the aforementioned superstars, teams are just as likely to go into wait and see mode as they are to start throwing money at every Jon Koncak that walks down the street.

Of course, in the NHL world, the Boston Bruins tried to do this, lay low before a new CBA, and look how it worked our for them. The NHL isn’t really a major sport anymore though, so let’s completely ignore it. It’s all right. The NHL is used to it.

Even after the new CBA, no matter how restrictive and owner-friendly they make it, it’s not as if the players are going to be playing for food stamps. Owners still want to charge hundreds of dollars for seats, and you gotta pay the performers if you want to do that.

If Pierce takes the $21.5 million, he won’t be in the NBA bread line in the summer of 2011 hopelessly seeking a deal from anyone before he is forced to sign with the Albany Patroons.

Pierce could conceivably take the $21.5 mil then sign, for example, a three-year, $30 million deal in 2011 (when he will be 33) with Celtics or another franchise, giving him $50 mil over four years.

On other hand, if he opts out, he isn’t getting anything more than a $10-$13 million annual salary over three years (which would bring him to his 35th birthday). So, we’ll say by opting out he’ll get $30-$39 million over three years.

$50 mil over four years or $39 over three and being a year younger when hitting free agency again but still being 35?

I’d take the $50 million over four years and I suspect Pierce is thinking that way was well, as he wants to retire with Celtics and this is the most lucrative way to do it. Any more questions about whether professional sports are a business?  Didn’t think so.

Conclusion

Per Hoops World, the Celtics’ current cap number is $67,622,592, including Wallace’s $6,322,320.

(Digression:  Do we need any more evidence that the NBA is a broken system? The most valuable players are ones with expiring contracts. Doesn’t speak well to the performance of GMs that the most sought after commodities are guys that are going to help erase mistakes made by said GMs. It’s a vicious cycle. One GM signs a player to a horrible contract and that player is an albatross until the final year of said contract wherein he becomes golden, as other GMs need to clean up previous messes. Go get em, boys!)

Without jettisoning Pierce and Allen and Wallace, Ainge has no flexibility to make sea changes to the roster. This will be true next offseason as well, forcing Ainge’s hand in re-signing Pierce to his final contract.

In the end, I think Pierce takes the $21.5 million and Schwartz immediately hounds Ainge for an extension. Of course, Danny will wait until after the new CBA is a done deal, if that ever happens.

Pierce knows his place in Celtics’ history. He is the third all time in points behind John Havlicek and Larry Bird, and fifth in minutes played. Both these records, while still a ways away, are within shouting distance and he should, at the very least, finish second in both categories.

Pierce knows he could approach these marks and spend the rest of his life coasting on bad local Shaw’s commercials and being put on the Jumbotron while sitting  in the TD Garden stands during big games.

It’s a sweet life.  Just ask Jo Jo White and Tommy Heinsohn.

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