Is Celtics Legend Paul Pierce Still a Top-20 NBA Star Heading into 2012-13?

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2012

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 07:  Paul Pierce #34 of the Boston Celtics reacts against the Miami Heat in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on June 7, 2012 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Not that it really matters to the Boston Celtics' chances of reaching the NBA Finals, but how good is Paul Pierce right now?

He turns 35 in October, and he's coming off a postseason in which he was hobbled by a knee injury. A quick look at his numbers might suggest he's on the decline, settling into the twilight of a career in which he was once such a prolific producer.

But that's why we're better off giving the numbers (and Pierce) more than a quick look.

The 10-time All-Star may have a harder time getting into the paint and drawing fouls these days, but he's done a nice job adjusting his game and playing off of Rajon Rondo. And those dwindling numbers really haven't dwindled all that much.

More importantly, they've remained pretty constant for five seasons, which suggests the reduced production has more to do with the roster's overall improvement than anything else.

In reality, Pierce is anything but washed-up.

He's almost a full year older than Kobe Bryant, but he's shot the ball more efficiently than Bryant in each of the last three seasons. And despite playing 4.5 fewer minutes per game last season, the two were almost identical when it came to rebounds and assists.

Of course, things could theoretically start to head south for Pierce at any given moment, but he's given us no reason to believe that moment will be 2012-13 or the season thereafter.

Despite a slow start to the season after missing training camp and his first three games due to a bruised heel, Pierce eventually returned to the form with which we've become so accustomed. He scored 30 or more points on six occasions, and that's fairly impressive given that Boston no longer depends on him to be the kind of go-to scorer he's been throughout the majority of his career.

Detractors will argue that Pierce can still contribute at times but that he's more of a complementary player at this point in his career.

How many complementary players contribute like Pierce, though?

He was the 14th-leading scorer in the NBA last season, all while racking up 4.5 assists from the small forward position (and on a team with the league leader in assists, no less). And for a guy supposedly on the decline, ranking 20th in usage rate isn't bad.

You'll hear the same kind of naysaying about almost any player getting into those mid-30s.

Pierce shouldn't feel especially singled out. The same story has been told about teammate Kevin Garnett or other enduring 30-somethings like Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. For some reason, analysts looking to drum up some attention love nothing more than declaring a star's imminent demise.

The best of them always find a way to keep going, and Pierce has done just that.

If he stays healthy—a decisive factor for young and old players alike—there's absolutely nothing stopping Pierce from playing All-Star caliber basketball for another two or three seasons. We've seen Steve Nash do it, and we'll probably see Kobe Bryant do it too.

Pierce has never depended upon unthinkable athleticism. 

His game is premised on skill, craftiness and his ability to let his teammates make him better. There's something to be said for how well he's transformed himself into one of the game's best off-the-ball threats, just waiting for Rondo to put him in a position to be successful.

In other words, Pierce is the kind of player with staying power. He doesn't need to jump over three guys in the lane in order to be effective. He never has.

Defense may not be the strength it once was, but Pierce is strong enough and smart enough to guard plenty of forwards in this league, even if LeBron James is no longer one of them.

Is he one of the NBA's 20 best players? 

On some nights, there's no question he's just that, and in the final analysis, it's still easier to make an argument for Pierce than it would be for any number of younger, sexier names looking to join those ranks.

He may have taken a slight step back, but that's not saying much given where he was to begin with.