Why only Paul Pierce, returning for a 19th NBA season, can stop himself

Ben Rohrbach
Paul Pierce can't stop, and he won't stop. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
Paul Pierce can’t stop, and he won’t stop. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

Paul Pierce was not good last season, and it pains me to say that, since The Truth was everything to a 20-something who did dumb things in Boston during the early 2000s before becoming a fully realized professional, because he was me. Well, except for that whole 2008 NBA Finals MVP thing.

I was 22 years old when Pierce led the Celtics to the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA playoff history against the New Jersey Nets on May 25, 2002, and it was the best of moments for a Boston basketball fan who didn’t see his first game at the Garden until Larry Bird’s back got the best of him.

My post-college life in Boston coincided almost entirely with Pierce’s 15 seasons there, and our paths crossed for a few years after I began covering the Celtics in 2010. He went from swinging his jersey overhead after getting ejected from a deciding game of their 2005 first-round series against the Indiana Pacers to raising a banner three years later. Around the same time, I went from swinging my shirt overhead at the Bell in Hand Tavern to raising my hand for a question at his press conferences.

Sure, Pierce made 10 trips to the All-Star Game during his Celtics tenure, and I merely covered the team at a D-League level, but I always saw some of myself in Pierce — or some of him in me — even if I know nobody else will (or even cares I did). He had his share of adversity in Boston, and I had mine, which I’ll spare you, but we both turned out better for it. Which is why I’m glad he’s probably back for another season, still trying to script a perfect ending with another chapter to a Hall of Fame legacy.

After yet another summer contemplating whether his 38-year-old body can withstand the rigors of NBA life, Pierce plans to return for another season, according to L.A. Times beat reporter Brad Turner.

Still not set in stone, he is scheduled to make $3.5 million in the middle of a three-year deal he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers last summer, which is roughly $3.5 million more than I’ll make chronicling what could again be the conclusion of a career arc I’ve spent the past 19 years admiring.

Paul Pierce knows his career could have turned out better had circumstances been different, likely the reason why he’s not ready to give up on the often broken promise of more professional glory, even if all signs point to a less majestic road. Which means there’s probably a bit of him in you, too.

As it stands, it’s been a great run for Pierce, what with 26,316 points, 7,479 rebounds, 4,698 assists, 1,748 steals and 740 blocks over 45,603 minutes in 1,318 games — numbers only matched by Karl Malone. But there are plenty of milestones left to be achieved. Even with a subpar season like 2015-16, when he averaged career lows across the board, he could still climb these historical rankings:

• He needs just 79 points to catch Celtics legend John Havlicek — an important one, given his history in Boston — for 15th on the all-time scoring list. Pierce sits just 684 points (267 more than he scored in an injury-shortened 2015-16) from becoming the 10th player in NBA history to score 27,000 career points, although LeBron James (26,833) will almost surely beat him to that mark early in 2016-17.

• A full 82-game season would make him the seventh player to appear in 1,400 career games, but he needs just 62 more to catch Clifford Robinson, whose 1,380 currently rank 10th in history. Although, again, Dirk Nowitzki (1,340) could prevent Pierce from comfortably settling into the all-time top 10.

• Jason Terry wants to play another season, but his NBA future remains uncertain after the Houston Rockets opted not to re-sign him, and that would give Pierce a shot to pass his former teammate for third in career 3-pointers. Pierce needs just 42 to catch Terry (he made 75 this past season) to settle in behind Ray Allen and Reggie Miller on the all-time list, at least until Stephen Curry passes them all.

That’s right: When all is said and done, those 2008 Celtics may have featured two of the three most prolific 3-point shooters in NBA history. But as much as Allen and Kevin Garnett — one of whom is considering a comeback at age 41 as the other is considering retirement at 40 — contributed to their lone title together, that championship belonged first and foremost to Pierce, who captured Finals MVP honors and had endured two rebuilds in Boston before finally being paired with legitimate talent.

Despite carrying the Celtics to an Eastern Conference finals appearance as a 24-year-old in 2002, when his 19 fourth-quarter points anchored that remarkable 21-point comeback in the final 12 minutes of Game 3 to give Boston a 2-1 series advantage they squandered in the next three games, Pierce was considered a productive but petulant performer who didn’t deserve a superstar label.

That all came to a head with the 2005 jersey-waving incident in Indiana — a series of unfortunate events Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan immediately described as “the single most unforgivable, untimely, stupid, and flat-out selfish on-court act in the history of the Celtics.” Yup, it was that bad.

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Garnett and Allen offered Pierce a chance to change that narrative, and he did more than earn Boston’s forgiveness. He scripted a second act worthy of a Garden jersey retirement ceremony and a spot among the five greatest Celtics ever. In addition to raising a banner to the rafters, his C’s came within six minutes of another title in 2010 and eight minutes of a third finals appearance in 2012.

If not for injuries to Garnett in 2009, Kendrick Perkins in 2010, Rajon Rondo in 2011, Avery Bradley in 2012 and Rondo again in 2013, Pierce’s career might look even more impressive when we look back on it after his inevitable retirement. But his return means I’m still looking into it, like a mirror revealing the wrinkles of time spent chasing dreams. He never wanted to leave Boston, and neither did I, but life changes in your mid-30s make for practical reasons to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

While he’s chased titles in Brooklyn, Washington and L.A. — carving out cool moments like the series-saving block in Game 7 against the Raptors in 2014 or coming within an an inch and a second of four straight game-deciding shots in the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals — I’ve been doing the same, only the title I chased was a jump from Celtics beat reporter to national NBA coverage here at Yahoo.

I’m sure I’ve shared this story before, but when Pierce returned for the 2000 home opener 37 days after nearly being knifed to death in a Boston nightclub attack, a sign in the Garden crowd read: “You can stab him, but you can’t stop him.” It’s a hell of a mantra still. Pierce played all 82 games that season, another 1,360 for his career, including the playoffs, and that run apparently isn’t ending yet.

So, yeah, you could say I have a soft spot in my heart for Paul Pierce, and I don’t want to see him go just yet, even if he was tremendous as a commentator during ABC’s coverage of the 2016 NBA Finals.

The 18th of his 19 seasons will likely end without a championship, but there will be moments in the pursuit, like another cold-blooded 3 in LeBron’s grill, taking a final bow at mid-court of Madison Square Garden after a game-winner against the New York Knicks or whatever the 2016 version is of Tebow-ing against the Atlanta Hawks. I just want to see Doc Rivers draw up one more elbow iso for The Truth. I just want to see Pierce, forever fighting for his NBA legacy, go one more round in the ring.

In the meantime, I’ll still be doing my thing, too, because I’ll always feel like I have one more great column in me (or, depending on your perspective, the first such column), even when I’m washed up and I’ve lost the touch. Better yet, I might just be fortunate enough to write about Paul Pierce again.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!