For Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, the end came quietly, matter-of-factly, a brief report and announcement. Kobe Bryant, as you might remember, took a different and much more fanfare-welcoming tack. It feels right and just that Paul Pierce would take the latter approach; his game might always have seemed a bit more elderly than explosive, but he’s long been one of the sport’s great showmen, one of its cockiest competitors, one who seemed as comfortable in the megawatt spotlight of last-second shots and playoff crucibles as he would in his own living room.
Of course he announces on the eve of training camp that the 2016-17 season, his second with the Los Angeles Clippers and his 19th in the NBA, will be his last. It just wouldn’t be right for Paul Pierce to exit the grand stage without giving every fan-base in every city the opportunity to say goodbye, to remember through gritted teeth all the times that “The Truth” set them free.
The announcement came Monday morning via The Players Tribune:
This is is it, my final season.
It’s time to move on from the game of basketball.
Just like any difficult decision, I think you’ve got to be at peace with yourself. I’m at peace with retiring, but I’ve got one more ride left. One more season. One more opportunity.
We’ve known Pierce was probably coming back for the season for a couple of months, but with two years remaining on the three-year, $10 million deal he signed last summer to link up with the Clippers and his former Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, we didn’t know for sure if this would be his last ride. Now we do, and now we can take the opportunity to appreciate all that the about-to-turn-39-year-old surefire Hall of Famer has given to the game over the years.
The numbers will dip this year, as he plays a limited reserve role on a Clippers team hoping to have a shot at an NBA championship, but Pierce enters his 19th campaign as one of just 22 players in league history to average at least 20 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, according to Basketball-Reference.com. It’s a list chock full of legends — Kareem, Wilt, Jordan, Bird, Oscar, West, Barkley, Dr. J, Havlicek, Elgin, and more. While Pierce only cracked the top-10 in MVP voting once in his career, that list offers some context as to just how consistently excellent a performer Pierce has been since coming off the board with the 10th pick in the 1998 NBA draft. (Kind of get the feeling the Clips wouldn’t have minded getting Pierce in house back then, rather than nearly two decades years later, instead of drafting Michael Olowokandi first overall.)
The 10-time All-Star stands 16th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 26,316 career points, and in the top 25 in a slew of other categories — games played (15th), minutes played (16th), steals (21st), field goals made (24th) and attempted (20th), 3-pointers made (fourth) and attempted (third), free throws made (eighth) and attempted (11th). As our Ben Rohrbach noted back in July, one last season gives Pierce a shot at reaching a few more milestones, most notably a move into the top 15 on the all-time scoring list, moving past Celtics legend John Havlicek. There’s history to play for, here, as well as the present-day goal of finally putting all the pieces together in L.A., shocking the world by toppling the all-but-anointed Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors and defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, and hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy one more time as he rides off into the sunset.
“I feel like I have one more opportunity on a great team, on and off the court,” Pierce said in the video that accompanied his announcement. “I just know what kind of people these guys are, and I feel like they want to win a championship. We want to win a championship. Like, all the pieces are there. This opportunity may never come about again, having this type of talent. I see it. I think they see it. And I think they’re more hungry than ever.”
Pierce knows what that opportunity looks like, how rare it is, and what it takes to seize it.
After spending the first half of his career as the offensive engine of Celtics clubs that largely struggled, making only two trips past the first round of the playoffs in his first nine seasons and occasionally sulking/smirking his way through it all in ways that didn’t always endear him to the broader NBA community, it seemed like Pierce was destined to be remembered as the quintessential great player on a bad team. (Wait, sorry, that wasn’t the exact quote: “It’s another year I don’t get recognized for the things I do. I’m the classic case of a great player on a bad team, and it stinks.” Important to be precise.) And then, a miracle.
In the summer of 2007, after a dismal 24-58 campaign that still stands as the second-worst in the Celtics’ illustrious history, general manager Danny Ainge swung for the fences and hit a pair of home runs. First, he flipped a collection of the largely underwhelming assets he’d been amassing through the draft and free agency — Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and a 2008 second-round draft pick later used on someone named Trent Plaisted — for seven-time All-Star shooting guard Ray Allen. That move, and the combination of Pierce and Allen on the wings, helped convince Kevin Garnett to accept a trade to Boston in exchange for another downright remarkable package: Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair, and future first-round draft picks that would turn into Wayne Ellington and Jonny Flynn.
Suddenly, Pierce had All-World help and the Celtics were absolutely loaded, ushering in the era of the super-team. Suddenly, Boston was rampaging through a 66-16 season en route to an NBA championship. Suddenly, Pierce’s game — the peerless and pristine footwork, the timely shotmaking, the playmaking savvy and opportunistic defensive help, the intelligence to understand exactly what was needed at precisely the right time — was appreciated in full view. He averaged 19.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.1 steals in 38.1 minutes per game during the 2008 postseason, including 21.8 points, 4.5 boards and 6.3 dimes per game in the Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, the team for which the Inglewood, Calif., native grew up rooting and the one Celtics fans wanted to vanquish more than any other — to earn Finals MVP honors, marking him as an all-time performer.
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The Celtics remained a threat over the ensuing years, coming one victory short of a second title in 2010 as the Lakers got their revenge, and giving the LeBron/Wade/Bosh Miami Heat — a team that could be viewed as a direct response to the Celtics’ accumulation of Hall of Fame talent — a rival against whom to do battle on their way to glory, before age and injuries led Ainge to look toward the future. The era’s end was as shocking as its blockbuster beginnings, coming in a draft-night deal that sent Pierce, Garnett, Jason Terry and D.J. White to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for a passel of salary-matching veterans and a cache of future draft picks, as Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and GM Billy King elected to go for broke in pursuit of the championship that would legitimize Brooklyn as a credible NBA power.
That didn’t work out so hot. The Nets went 44-38 and won just one playoff series in the lone year that Pierce wore Brooklyn’s black and white before jumping ship, went 38-44 the next season, and now both stand as one of the NBA’s worst teams and lack the draft capital to import high-lottery first-round picks who could help jump-start the rebuilding process. Even so, though, the Nets stint helped kickstart Pierce’s late-career renaissance as a capital-letters Veteran Leader and totem of confidence, giving us “That’s why they got me here” and the series-winning block in Game 7 on the road in Toronto. It opened the door to his one-year stay in D.C. with the Washington Wizards, where he turned Randy Wittman into a genius by killing the Raptors as a small-ball power forward, and where he “called game”, and came within an inch and a second of four straight game-deciding shots in the 2015 Eastern Conference semis.
Despite going from elite player on a title team to aging complementary piece on teams that couldn’t get past Round 2 in the East, Pierce only burnished his legend bona fides by bouncing around. He became an elder statesman and a “journeyman,” and he wore the mantle lightly; he clearly enjoyed every step of that journey, and he’s intent on going out that way, too.
“On a personal level, knowing that this is the last time I’ll suit up in an NBA uniform, I’m going to have more fun than ever,” Pierce said. “I’m going to enjoy the ride. I’m going to enjoy the bus rides, I’m going to enjoy the plane rides, I’m going to enjoy practice every day, and I’m going to just enjoy the camaraderie one last time. I’ve been in the NBA 18 years, but I’ve been playing the game of basketball for like 30 years, and that’s … hard to walk away from that. But like most homes, you get that 30-year mortgage. I’ve paid it off.”
How perfect is that: even his exit line’s drenched in old-man game. Part of me thinks it’s going to be hard to say goodbye to Paul Pierce. The rest of me, though, thinks he’s going to do everything he can not to make it that way.
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