What's Next for Paul Pierce Heading into Uncertain 2013 Offseason?

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What's Next for Paul Pierce Heading into Uncertain 2013 Offseason?
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Should Paul Pierce stay or should he go?

The Boston Celtics have got to let him know (to some extent) by June 30. That's the last day on which the C's can buy out the final year of Pierce's contract at a steep discount. Otherwise, they'll be on the hook for the full $15.3 million he's owed for the 2013-14 NBA season.

Unless, of course, Boston opts to ship him out at some point.

The truth about The Truth's future in Beantown is about much more than money, though. Pierce has spent his entire 15-year pro career with the Celtics, playing in two NBA Finals and winning one title along the way. Along the way, he's etched himself prominently into Celtics lore, endearing himself to the team's loyal fans and ensuring his place among the impressive pantheon of franchise legends.

He's also made it clear in the past that he wants to retire in green (via Steve Bulpett of The Boston Herald) and that he doesn't plan to hang 'em up this summer (via Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe).

Unfortunately for Pierce, he only has control over the latter. How the C's treat the former may well define the future of the franchise, whichever choice general manager Danny Ainge and his basketball brain trust make in the end. As Ainge put it (via Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com):

"Listen, Paul's been one of the greatest Celtics of all time and that will play part in it. We love what he's done for us, but ultimately we have to do what we think is the best for us from this point forward. And I think that Paul still has a lot of basketball left in him."

Which way should Boston turn? And how would each outcome affect the organization going forward?

 

2012-13 by the Numbers

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By nearly all measures, Paul Pierce had himself about as productive a campaign in 2012-13 as one could expect from him at the tender age of 35. Pierce led the C's in scoring for the 13th year in a row, at 18.6 points per game.

Pierce was particularly effective after Rajon Rondo went down with a torn ACL. He tallied the first of his three triple-doubles on the season in the immediate aftermath of Rondo's injury and hit 41.7 percent of his threes from that point forward. That mark would've counted as a new career-high had it been achieved over the course of an entire season.

Not bad for a guy who's supposedly over the hill. Neither is the fact that the C's went 21-17 after Rondo went down, thanks in no small part to Pierce's efforts to extend himself as a ball-handler and a passer, in addition to his established scoring duties.

To be sure, Pierce was far from perfect, particularly in the playoffs. He shot just 36.8 percent from the field (26.8 percent from three) and turned the ball over 5.3 times per game during the Celtics' six-game loss to the New York Knicks in the first round.

But, considering the circumstances, Paul can hardly be blamed for Boston's first opening-round flameout since Kevin Garnett came to town in 2007.

 

What They're Saying

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Paul Pierce hasn't said much publicly since early May, when he shot down the notion of retirement during the C's series against the Knicks (via Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe):

"Truthfully, I haven't put too much thought into it. The organization is going to do what they're going to do. It's nothing that's stressing me out. That's what it is. Every year they've got decision to make. Those are their decisions. I leave it to them."

"I always been a guy that's said things happen for a reason. I was a No. 10 pick, I didn't anticipate that. I just always feel like throughout my whole career everything is going to fall into the right place for me. I don't really put much thought into after the season but I know at the end of the day whatever they do, whatever I do, it's going to fall in the right place for me."

"Right now it's year-by-year," he said. "I expect to play another year next year and then evaluate after that. I always said I wanted to end my career as a Celtic. But they are the ones (with the decision). I have a year contract for next year but it's not guaranteed so the decision's in their hands. But whatever decision they make, maybe, if they trade me somewhere or I end up somewhere else maybe it could be a situation where I come back for a one-day deal and retire a Celtic."

Of course, Pierce's own silence hasn't stopped everyone else from commenting on his future. Danny Ainge spoke equivocally of Pierce's performance this season while at the NBA Draft Combine (via Gary Washburn):

“Paul’s always battling little things. I think Paul’s healthy, but he played so hard and carried such a heavy load.

“Paul had a terrific year this year, but in the playoffs, New York did a good job of taking away his strengths and taking advantage of some of our weaknesses. But I thought Paul had a terrific year.”

At least one other general manager at the combine seemed to agree that Pierce can still perform effectively in the NBA, albeit while throwing cold water on the notion of him switching teams (via Steve Bulpett):

“Everyone knows KG and Pierce can still play, but if you’re another team, what can you really give up for them? Another coach may want to make that deal, but the GM and the owner probably won’t.”

 

Stock Watch

According to Basketball Reference, only three players in the NBA this season can claim to have averaged at least 18 points, six rebounds, and four assists. One of them was Paul Pierce.

The other two? LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

This isn't to suggest that Pierce is on their level whatsoever. James is at the peak of his awesome powers and Durant is still figuring out the limits of his own, while Pierce is settling into the twilight of his career.

The point is, if Pierce were, say, two or three years younger than he is, he'd be a highly attractive trade option for any organization on the brink of title contention that's seeking a piece to put its squad over the top.

Heck, that holds true (by and large) even with Pierce's age being what it is. However, the fact that he's in his mid-30s, as opposed to his early 30s, makes him that much more of an injury risk and, in turn, a less attractive option for a team that might otherwise attempt to swing a trade for him.

That is, unless the C's attach a modest price tag to their beloved swingman—one that would entice, say, the Los Angeles Clippers to sacrifice a modicum of their long-term youth for some win-now moxie.

In any case, Pierce's performance in 2012-13 placed him in some rather choice historical company. Only three other players—Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, and Karl Malone—had ever averaged a line of 18-6-4 over the course of a season at the age of 35 or older, per Basketball Reference.

(Side note: Remarkably enough, Malone pulled it off four times with the Utah Jazz. Say what you want about the Mailman's inability to come through in big moments, but the guy was an ageless wonder.)

That may not be enough to keep Pierce safe in Boston, though it does plenty to cement his legacy as a surefire Hall of Famer.  

 

Contract Situation

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If money were no object (and no issue under the new collective bargaining agreement), then keeping Paul Pierce would be much closer to a no-brainer for the Celtics than it would currently appear to be.

Sure, Boston isn't winning a title with its current club, which includes Pierce and Garnett. But dumping those two wouldn't likely drop the C's far enough down the pecking order to put them within range of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Julius Randle in the 2014 NBA Draft lottery.

Assuming those kids all ditch college after one year, and assuming Boston hangs onto the likes of Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green...and doesn't mind either playing Green out of position or letting him learn behind Pierce for another year.

Of course, money is an object in this case—and a rather important one at that. Pierce is owed just over $15.3 million in the final year of his contract in 2013-14.

Should the C's keep him, they would not only be over the NBA's luxury tax line, but also far enough over it to incur the wrath of the collective bargaining agreement in the team's efforts to retool the roster.

Which would be problematic for Danny Ainge, were he to have his sights set on a significant shakeup.

What should the C's do about Paul Pierce?

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Otherwise, Boston could ease their financial burden in a few ways:

1) Buy out the last year of Pierce's deal for $5 million. That would save Boston more than $10 million in salary obligations and would slide the team under the luxury tax threshold. The C's have until June 30 to make up their minds.

2) Use the amnesty provision on Pierce's contract. The window to do so is only open between July 1 and July 9 this year (per Marc Stein of ESPN.com). Cutting Pierce in this way would put the Celtics right around the initial salary cap limit, though they'd still be obligated to pay whatever share of Paul's salary isn't picked up by another team on the waiver wire.

3) Trade Paul for cheaper pieces and figure it out.

If the C's do, indeed, decide to cut ties with Pierce, they'd likely see Kevin Garnett walk away from the last two years on his deal as well. That would save Boston an additional $12.4 million in 2013-14 and $12 million the year after, thereby freeing up enough cap space to bring in a quality player.

Perhaps even one of Pierce's caliber...

 

Projected 2013-14 Stat Line

17.9 PPG / 5.4 RPG / 3.5 APG/ .456 FG% / .385 3PT%

 

Should Paul Pierce still be in a Celtics uniform come fall, he'll likely be called upon to lead the team in scoring for a 14th year in succession.

At his age, though, Pierce is hardly a lock for 20 points a night. He finally is the old man to which his "old man game" has long been tailored, but that doesn't mean he's about to jack up 18-to-20 shots every time he takes the floor.

Nor should anyone expect him to stuff the stat sheet to quite the extent he did this past season. Once Rondo returns, Pierce will no longer be charged with the team's ball-handling and distribution duties. Instead, he'll be able to return to the role of scoring specialist that's been his charge for the better part of two decades in Boston.

The less energy Pierce has to devote to non-scoring pursuits, the more he'll have to spend on his long-time specialty. And the less he has to do to create those opportunities (with Rondo whipping passes around the floor), the more likely his shots are to go in.

Ideally, then, Pierce's shooting percentages would climb, however slightly, in 2013-14, while his counting stats continue to decline.

 

The Crystal Ball Says...

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Pierce stays. The Celtics are pretty much stuck in the NBA's "No Man's Land" for another year, whether they dump Pierce or not. They're either one of the bottom four seeds in the East with him, Garnett and Rondo, or they're finishing between ninth and 12th without him.

All of which is to say, Boston isn't likely to land a franchise-changing talent in the 2014 draft unless it goes for the full blow-up, with Rondo and Green getting the boot as well. Even then, the C's aren't guaranteed a golden ticket.

They, of all teams, should know, after missing out on a top-two pick in the 2007 draft.

For now, it would behoove the Celtics to make the most of the Pierce-Garnett farewell tour at their feet before wholeheartedly retooling around Rondo, who doesn't figure to be completely recovered from his torn ACL until 2014-15 anyway.

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