Every NBA coach, scout, executive, player, analyst and blogger will give you 20 different names if you ask them for the league's 20 best players. With so much talent overflowing from so many different teams and so many different positions, the water can get murky when contrasting criteria is brought into the discussion.
Individual offense, individual defense, efficient scoring, the ability to rebound, the ability to make teammates better and the contextual value a player has for his respective organization are just a few ways to weigh a player's contribution against his peers.
On Jan. 24, Pierce either will be named to the 11th All-Star team of his career, or he will not. He's 35 years old, and his name just being mentioned in this conversation as one of the best players in the league is remarkable.
Pierce's PER of 19.6 is right where it was six years ago when he was MVP of the NBA Finals, and his usage percentage of 28.5 percent is the highest it's been in 11 years. He's ninth in the league in points, ninth in free-throw makes and free-throw attempts (the latter of which he has more than Dwyane Wade and Blake Griffin—two top-20 players on anybody's list), 17th in field-goal attempts and his usage percentage is 11th.
In the last five minutes of games where his team is ahead or behind by one point, Pierce has scored 28 points, more than everybody in the league except Kevin Durant. (Note: Pierce has played more minutes than anyone in the league in this situation.)
Pierce's PER and per-game scoring average are both fourth-highest among small forwards, and he's still the best at his position out of anyone not named LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Durant. (Apologies to Paul George, Luol Deng, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala and Nicolas Batum.)
How's he getting it done so late in his career? The Celtics have consistently placed Pierce in positions to succeed, forcing mismatches that allow him to back down smaller, weaker players.
According to Synergy, in 2010, 20.5 percent of Pierce's shot attempts came from isolation attempts, and 7.9 percent came in post-ups, where he was the 135th most efficient player in the league (0.78 points per possession on 38.8 percent shooting).
Earlier this season much was made about the dramatic increase in different ways the Celtics used Pierce within their offense. So far, only 13.5 percent of his plays are being used in isolation and 11.3 percent in post-up situations. What's most remarkable about him working with his back to the basket is the increase in efficiency (50 percent shooting, ranked 17th overall with 0.94 points per possession).
(In the three plays above, the Celtics utilize a switch to get Pierce a smaller player on his hip. He bullies each one into a high-percentage look at the basket.)
Pierce still remains one of the game's top individual offensive weapons, but his impact as the Celtics' most consistent overall player is what most helps his cause in any "top 20" argument.
He's playing the fewest minutes per game of his career, yet averaging more shots than at any point in the Kevin Garnett era. Boston's offense is 5.9 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the court, and with his team in desperate need of closing possessions out on the glass each and every night, Pierce is posting a career-best defensive rebounding percentage of 18.3 percent.
He leads the team in scoring, three-point attempts and free-throw attempts, is second in assists, minutes, three-point percentage and steals, and is third in rebounds and true shooting percentage. Pierce's usage percentage is eight points higher than Rajon Rondo's, a player who's nine years younger and was expected to be Boston's offensive catalyst before the season started.
Boston is 10-5 when Pierce scores over 20 points, and 10-8 when he attempts more shots than his average. Thanks to his elite three-point range, he's proven capable of still putting up classic scoring performances—most notably on Dec. 19 against Cleveland.
(Pierce scored 40 points in just under 34 minutes, going an impressive 13-of-16 from the floor and an incredible 6-of-7 from behind the arc. For icing on the cake, he also went 8-of-8 from the free-throw line and had five assists, eight rebounds and only one turnover.)
Just like every other 35-year-old to ever play in the NBA, Pierce's defense isn't what it used to be. But he's smart, always in the correct position and makes opposing small forwards work hard in isolation. Even at his age, Pierce is still a better overall defender than Anthony and Gay.
The Celtics are a .500 basketball team, but they've shown obvious strides toward getting better. While the bench struggled to find consistency and Rondo proved incapable of becoming the scorer they sorely needed, Pierce, more than any other player, steered them through their early season storm. It should be seen as no coincidence that he leads the team in win shares, and in this writer's opinion, is currently one of the NBA's 20 best players.
All statistics in this article were used from Synergy Sports, NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.com.
Follow the author on Twitter: @MichaelVPina