Pierce not the piece for C's

Originally Published: January 26, 2005
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

(Editor's note: Paul Pierce scored 23 points in leading the Celtics to a 100-86 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night.)

The Boston Celtics have said publicly, and told several GMs privately, that they do not want to trade Paul Pierce. Pierce, according to his agent, does not want to be traded.

In related news, Mother Nature didn't plan the Ice Age and dinosaurs did not want to go extinct.

Paul Pierce
Pierce has become accustomed to going it alone on the court, one man vs. five opponents.

The point being: Evolution doesn't do a la carte and the Celtics, sooner rather than later, are going to be compelled to advance from the current era in which Pierce is the centerpiece of everything they do. Maybe if they were constructed differently, maybe if the load of talent executive director Danny Ainge has imported over the last two seasons complemented Pierce's strengths and weaknesses, making such a move wouldn't be necessary. But it (the talent) doesn't, so it (the move) is.

One way to put it is this: if Al Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins, Tony Allen and Jiri Welsch continue to evolve, Ricky Davis doesn't get on the wrong side of the dividends and deficits ledger and Delonte West proves to be a serviceable backup point guard, the Celtics have an array of building blocks that need only a centerpiece to make sense of it all. A centerpiece whose example gets all that athleticism and toughness dialed in on defense and creates easy shots on offense.

These are not what Paul Pierce, current centerpiece, provides.

The worst part is, I think he's genuinely trying to adjust and make room for the Celtics' new talent. But I also think that when you've had to carry the load for years, which has meant slowing the tempo to make your energy last for four quarters and floating on defense to keep your legs fresh for a final scoring burst if the game was close, it's hard to completely shed those tendencies.

The most beguiling element about Pierce is his almost palpably gloomy aura. There are times I expect the stalks on plants to wilt and turn gray as he goes by. There are times he smiles and I know he has every reason to be happy, and yet it looks as if he's wincing -- as if feeling complete, unadulterated joy is simply not possible. For a while I thought this was a figment of my imagination until someone with the Celtics said the organization was aware of it, too.

For what it's worth, that's where Pierce's tandem with Antoine Walker worked. Walker, whatever frustration his aversion to grinding it out on the block might have caused the Celtic faithful, has an infectious spirit that can unite and inspire a team. He's just as capable of drowning that same squad when the 3s are flying a little fast, furious and ineffectively, and he's scowling at the refs rather than busting back on D, but when all is right with 'Toine the entire building feels it. I've seen Pierce make some gutsy acrobatic drives and bury some game-breaking 3s, but I've seldom seen the energy of his teammates rise behind it.

It's not easy arguing the necessity of a fate Pierce doesn't want, considering his personal history. He was a terrific steal with the 10th pick seven years ago. His complete recovery from a near-fatal stabbing five years ago was inspirational, especially when it led to the Celtics' run to the 2002 Eastern Conference finals. He's a prolific scorer, an underrated rebounder and wondrously consistent, averaging 21.6 points this season (before Tuesday's game vs. Indiana) and only once giving the Celtics fewer than 13 this season. He gets to the free-throw line and has curbed his appetite for jacking up 3s. (Last season, he shot 4.8 per game; he's down to 3.8 this season.)

That consistency, though, is partly what bothers me. With the best player on other teams, victories are directly linked to his performance in a particular element of the game. For Tim Duncan, it's nearly a 10-percent hike in field-goal percentage. For Allen Iverson, it's a sizeably healthier assist/turnover ratio. For Ray Allen, it's a 20 percent hike in his three-point shooting. For Paul? It's no one area. He picks up an extra assist, an extra rebound, he shoots a slightly higher percentage -- that's it.

I've seen Pierce make some gutsy acrobatic drives and bury some game-breaking 3s, but I've seldom seen the energy of his teammates rise behind it.
Then again, this is not about rating his overall talent or having a quantifiable grasp of where the disconnection is between him and the rest of the team. It's about spending a week up close with the Celtics and dialing them up on the dish from afar.

It's watching how intimidating they are when they play up-tempo ball -- when they look like the Suns of the East -- overcoming their lack of rebounding and post offense by using their agile and athletic big men to create transition mismatches.

It's watching the ball and players move in rhythm and then -- not always, but fairly often -- seeing everything shift down a gear as Pierce tries to make something happen.

It's seeing a cast of young talent that needs a maestro to motivate and orchestrate it -- and watching Pierce construct impressive solos that sometimes win and other times are the consolation prize after a loss.

It's the equivalent of Luther Vandross crooning one of his classics while Outkast has the joint jumpin' from the same stage. Some nights it's going to work, but no one is going to want the boxed set.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Pierce can convert. Maybe, as the young Celtics grow, they'll mold themselves around him and find someone else to light their emotional fires. Or maybe Ainge will move some of those pieces for some that better complement Pierce's tempo and tendencies. Maybe.

But I've got a brontosaurus burger for you that says different.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer