The truth about Paul Pierce

If nothing else, the 2008 NBA Finals will be remembered for proving several theories beyond a reasonable doubt.

For instance, we can now be sure of the following.

1. Sasha Vujacic is the most annoying professional basketball player since Bill Laimbeer (and the worst part of the ongoing soccerization of the NBA).

2. The idea of Lamar Odom is always preferable to the reality (see also Gasol, Pau).

3. If you are a pregnant woman on a television sitcom and your water breaks and you need to be rushed to the hospital, Kevin Garnett is the not the person you’d want driving the car. (To use another medical-related analogy, if KG were a heart surgeon, he’d punch a hole in your chest and rip the still-beating organ out with his bare hands. Impressive in his intensity, physical ability and determination, sure. But not the guy you want to save your life.)

4. Jack Nicholson is now slightly more interested than Phil Jackson in coaching the Los Angeles Lakers.

5. Chris Mihm is still alive.

6. Paul Pierce is a Hall of Famer.

With all due respect to Sasha, Lamar, Jack, Chris and KG’s ultimately crushing fear of failure, it is this sixth confirmation that is most intriguing. Because previous to this Paul Pierce was the least remarkable superstar in the NBA. Or at least the least celebrated. And this was probably unjust. If not at all that surprising.

After three years at the University of Kansas, where according to Wikipedia he majored in crime and delinquency studies, Pierce was taken 10th overall in 1998, a third of the way through maybe the worst first round in NBA draft history. Behold those 29 picks and try not to laugh (or dry heave). Michael Olowokandi went number one to the Clippers. Raef LaFrentz went third. Robert Traylor, sixth. Jason Williams, seventh. Pierce was taken one spot ahead of Bonzi Wells, two spots ahead of Michael Doleac.

(Not to dwell on this draft, but seriously. Bryce Drew? Michael Dickerson? Brian Skinner? Mirsad Turkcan? And in addition to Wells, you’ve got a starting line-up of headcases with Keon Clark, Ricky Davis, Ruben Patterson and Rafer Alston. Even the good picks were somehow awful. Milwaukee took Dirk Nowitzki ninth but dealt him to Dallas—for Tractor Traylor and the rights to Pat Garrity. Toronto flipped the eventually reliable Antwan Jamison for the periodically crippled Vince Carter. This is why those guys who run mock draft websites are primarily driven by unresolved sadness.)

In his rookie season he scored 16.5 points per game, but has since never averaged less than 19.5 ppg (peaking in 2005-2006 when he averaged 26.8). He has played in six all-star games, led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference semi-finals in 2002, and shot more free throws than any other player in the 2002-2003 season.

Still. Though he made the all-rookie team in 1999, he’s since never been named to the first or second all-NBA teams. He’s never finished higher than 11th in MVP voting. He led the league in total points one year, but the official scoring title goes to whoever averages the most points per game (and that year Allen Iverson was smart enough to boost his average by strategically missing 22 games). The only other time Pierce led the NBA in anything was in the 2003-2004 season, when he finished with the most turnovers.

Indeed, the most singularly remarkable achievement of his career to date is probably playing a full 82 games in the 2000-2001 season after he was jumped from behind in a bar, hit over the head with a bottle and stabbed eleven times just before training camp. Of course, were he Michael Jordan, his recovering from lung surgery, playing an entire season, averaging 25.3 points per game and, you know, not dying after such an attack would be the stuff of legend and myth and 72 columns by Rick Reilly. Since it’s Paul Pierce, his wounds were described as “superficial” and all record of the incident is now kept in that “Let us never speak of this again” file David Sterns keeps in the bottom drawer of his desk.

(In that file you’ll also find pretty much everything to do with Kobe Bryant that doesn’t involve him being super fantastic. That halftime vignette on his idyllic home life the other night was breath-taking. Is Andy Samberg now writing for ABC? Are they trying to be ironic? I look forward to future stories about Ron Artest’s role in negotiating Middle East peace, Isaiah Thomas teaching inner city kids valuable money management skills and Donald Sterling’s enduring commitment to winning with class.)

Of course, Pierce is not nearly the player Jordan was. Nor has he ever, even once, been the dominant player of the post-Jordan era. That list is a fairly short one, probably including Kobe, Iverson, Shaq, Wade, LeBron and Duncan. But nor would you have included Pierce among the next tier of unique, if not quite legendary, stars—Nowitzki, Nash, Garnett, Kidd and maybe Yao Ming—either.

He isn’t as spectacularly skilled as Carter, but obviously possessed twice the work ethic (in fairness, most 12-year-old boys could claim as much). Is he better than Tracy McGrady? Probably not on pure talent, but maybe on overall result. But what about, say, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Richard Hamilton, Gilbert Arenas, Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, Amare Stoudemire or Antawn Jamison? Would Pierce have ranked ahead of some of those guys? Most? Surely not all. At least in terms of measurable stardom.

Even on this Celtics team, Pierce tends to get lost. Ray Allen is a better shooter. Kevin Garnett is a better rebounder (and more impressive presence). Rajon Rondo is a flashier passer. James Posey might be a superior defender. Leon Powe is more endearing. And Sam Cassell is weirder-looking. Glen Davis even has a larger ass.

(This also makes Pierce and the rest of the Celtics roster perfectly suited. Since he’s very good at half a dozen things, but not the best at anything, every other player with some specific skill easily complements him. To speak in terms Bob Villa can understand, he is the wood frame of the house. Or possibly the cement foundation. To be honest, I don’t know much about architecture.)

Pierce’s actual numbers then are kind of surprising. He’s ninth among active players in total points (behind Shaq, Iverson, Kobe, Garnett, Allen, Duncan, Webber and Nowitzki). And on a per game basis, he’s sixth (behind Iverson, LeBron, Shaq, Kobe and Vince). He’s also eighth in steals, 10th in three-point field goals and 12th in Player Efficiency Rating (a measure no one understands, but everyone mentions when it helps in making their point).

According to Basketball Reference’s vaguely reliable Hall of Fame Probability, Pierce is the 11th most likely current player to eventually join the Hall. All-time that rating puts him 65th overall, just ahead of Tiny Archibald, Jo Jo White and Kevin McHale. (Granted, Basketball Reference puts Vince Carter 51st. So being a sociopath apparently isn’t taken into account.)

Pierce has essentially spent the last decade playing great basketball. Just not of the kind that would make him more freakishly impressive than Amare Stoudemire or as relentlessly polarizing as Manu Ginobli. It would help of course if he starred in a stop snitching video (see Anthony, Carmelo) or blogged (see Arenas, Gilbert). But he hasn’t. He’s just played consistently at a very high, but not dominant, level. Which is obviously a problem.

The closest comparison to what Paul Pierce has accomplished in these Finals is probably what James Worthy, MVP in 1988, did with the Lakers. Their Finals numbers are even similar (22/7/4 for Worthy, 21/5/6 for Pierce). But Worthy was never the best all-around player on his team. Pierce always was, the vast majority of us just never realized it.

So maybe the enduring lesson of Paul Pierce, owner of the most under-rated sports nickname of the last decade, is this: the truth is never quite as exciting as perception. 

The NBA, like most forms of public life, rewards the exceptional. But Pierce, at least when compared to the best of his profession, does nothing obviously exceptional. Despite two certifiably great games (28 points and eight assists in Game 2, 38 points, eight assists and six rebounds in Game 5), two other nights of 20 or more points, a double-double in Game 6 and admirably guarding Bryant for long stretches, I’m not sure he made a single memorable play in these Finals. He goes to the basket relentlessly (he shot 19 free throws in Game 5), but Pierce doesn’t so much drive to the basket as wander there, stumbling from one obstacle to the next before lunging at the hoop. He also always seem on the verge of falling down (something that helps him draw so many fouls). 

Even his signature moment in this series—collapsing in Game 1 as if shot in the knee, requiring a wheelchair ride to the dressing room and then coming back a few minutes later with no visible sign of pain—was strangely anti-climactic. Less than impressed, the crowd in L.A., in a rare moment of attention, chanted “wheel-chair! wheel-chair!” at him once the series moved to the West Coast. Indeed, he seemed somehow to have deflated his own moment. If only he’d limped a little more noticeably afterwards. Or grimaced more frequently. He didn’t sell it. 

That’s apparently where we’re at. Reality demands a certain level of theatre. You have to act the part. And what’s probably the fault of MTV. Or Karl Rove.

But that also probably makes Paul Pierce the sort of unheralded, quietly great, professional athlete we’re always wishing we could root for. Only we don’t. Because we’re too busy wondering how good a father Kobe Bryant is. Or why KG won’t do everyone a favour and disembowel Sasha Vujacic.

Such is the NBA. Such is life. The truth, as always, hurts.