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Ever since being drafted 10th overall by the Celtics back in 1998, Paul Pierce has been “the guy” in Boston. The closer. The Captain. The Truth. Even when he wasn’t the only All-Star on the C’s, whether in his early days of sharing the floor with Antoine Walker or with the recent reincarnation of the Big Three, he has been seen as the team’s go-to player. However, it may be time to admit that Pierce is no longer the dominant player he once was.
It has been acknowledged for the last couple of years that this team belongs more and more to Rajon Rondo, the strong-willed point guard who makes this team go. As players like Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen aged, Rondo assumed more of a leadership role both on and off the floor, taking the reins of the offense that used to run through its captain. Pierce still has managed to put up respectable numbers recently, averaging between 18.3 and 19.4 points per game over the last four years, but the differences in his all-around game are clear to see.
It may be time for Pierce (and Danny Ainge) to acknowledge this inconvenient truth.
On offense, Pierce has never counted himself among the league’s real leapers or explosive athletes, but he’s always managed to get by on skill and craft. This trend has been exaggerated even more in his old age, as whatever lift he had appears to have vanished. Fans have seen many jump shots fall short this season, bouncing off the front of the rim, a classic sign that the shooter’s legs are tired. While still able to get up for the occasional dunk when the moment is right, Pierce’s ability to offensively take over a game and get to the hoop by himself is fading fast. He also has struggled defensively to keep up with his man, often getting lost through screens or picks, something that never used to happen.
Doc has clearly realized this as well, giving Pierce extended rest at the ends of quarters and halves and on days off. During their recent two-day break, Pierce, along with Garnett and Jason Terry, were given both days off from practice to rest and recover. In an 82 game season, the daily grind can have an effect pretty quickly, and so it is in the best interest of the team to give Pierce extra rest, even at this early stage of the year.
This strategy can be seen as counterproductive by those who say it may cost the Celtics games during the regular season, but I tend to disagree. A necessary part of any team is a solid bench, and if they can’t close down some games when needed, then the Celtics aren’t going far anyways.
The depth of the Celtics was thought to be their major strength this year, but so far some bench players have shown serious inconsistency. Jeff Green is a prime example of this. A year removed from a highly invasive surgery on a potentially life-threatening condition in his heart, Green has bounced back nicely so far, showing flashes of the potential that prompted Danny Ainge to trade Kendrick Perkins for him two years ago. Despite these glimpses, and his recent stretch of excellent play, many are still not convinced that he is a long-term solution for Boston to replace Pierce.
I agree with this unfortunately pessimistic viewpoint, but with some reservations. Green has proven that he can score, and with some early-season highlight reel dunks and finishes he has shown that surgery did not rob him of his athletic abilities, but it still feels like something is lacking in his game. Green doesn’t have that capability that separates elite scorers from simply good players; namely, he struggles to create his own shot. I just can’t see the Celtics feeling comfortable setting him up in an isolation play to try and win the game for them, the way Pierce has done for years. Green definitely has the skills to be a productive starting player in this league, but I fear his ceiling may be as a nice complementary piece.
With someone like Rondo feeding him the ball, and if Jared Sullinger can reach his own full potential alongside him, the Celtics of three years from now could certainly be one more big starter away from contending in the playoffs.
So, despite his history here in Boston and incredible dedication to the organization, it seems that Pierce’s best years are in fact behind him. He seems to have slowed even more this year, and Doc Rivers is limiting his minutes out of necessity. Long gone are the days of Paul demanding to go man to man with Lebron James in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and then dropping 41 points on him, as his defensive and offensive prowess seem to have fallen victim to age, as inevitably happens to even the best. Is his replacement here already? Only time will tell.