For the first time in his career, Paul Pierce is not a primary scoring option. But through his first four games as a Brooklyn Net, he's already adjusted to a brand-new role on a brand-new team.
For better or for worse, the 41-40 Celtics ran their offense through Pierce last season. (Apart from 2008, which was Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen’s first season on board, Pierce was the team’s leader in usage percentage every year since 2002.) For one last hurrah, an overburdened Pierce carried his middling Celtics into the playoffs.
Not only was he the team’s go-to scorer, but after Rajon Rondo went down for the season with a torn ACL, the Celtics had no backup point guard able to step in and initiate offense. Pierce had to make teammates better, run pick-and-rolls, crash the glass and spend significant time guarding the opposing team’s best player.
The expanded role was far too heavy for his then-35-year-old shoulders, and in Boston’s first-round matchup against the New York Knicks, he crumbled.
Now on the Brooklyn Nets, the situation is mostly unfamiliar for Pierce. Surrounded by overwhelming talent, his function as an NBA player is still important, but it’s no longer paramount to his team’s success. The nightly pressure that comes with high expectations is spread out to Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Jason Kidd.
For Pierce, this is fantastic, life-affirming news. He’s finally free to focus on what he’s still great at. And at this stage in his career, less means so much more.
The Nets have only played four games, so it’s imperative all the numbers used in this piece be taken with a grain of salt. But the most noticeable difference between now and the last few years is Pierce’s decrease in minutes. He’s averaging less than 30 per game for the first time in his career, and his 11.7 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes stand as a career low.
The result, so far, has been fresh legs and increased effectiveness. If the season ended today (thank goodness it doesn’t), Pierce’s 23.7 PER and 71.0 percent True Shooting percentage would both be the highest of his career (19th and eighth best in the league through Wednesday’s games, according to Basketball-Reference.com).
Most of Pierce’s career highlights reside in the mid-range area—most notably the right elbow—but it really can’t be stated how unerring his shot is, and the Nets are wisely using it to their advantage.
In 2004, he shot 29.9 percent from deep on 384 attempts. Last year he launched 382 and made 38.0 percent. Pierce’s usage percentage was 3 percent higher 10 years ago, and his looks at the rim were mucked up by opposing defenses keying in on him every night, sans Rajon Rondo, Garnett and Allen out there diverting attention.
As they grow older and begin to decelerate as athletes, high-volume scorers who never developed range are eventually shoved out of the league, especially in today’s three-point-obsessed game. Those who can shoot get to stay around. By simply standing out on the perimeter, they affect the defense, creating driving lanes and passing windows. This is why Pierce is still a lethal weapon.
Here's a snapshot from the first quarter of Brooklyn's one-point victory over the Miami Heat last Friday.
Moments before it was taken, Pierce cut across the foul line from one wing to the other, dragging Dwyane Wade with him. The move uncluttered the lane, allowing Garnett to feed Brook Lopez with a perfect high-low lob. In a vacuum, using Pierce as a decoy is smart, but it becomes a stroke of obvious genius after factoring in his new context, and how he can help all the off-the-dribble talent found elsewhere on Brooklyn's roster.
Seventy-one of Pierce’s 111 minutes this year have come with Deron Williams on the court, according to NBA.com/Stats, and that’s huge. Williams is the clear and rightful primary ball-handler on a team that has several scorers used to creating shots on their own. For Pierce, playing with Williams allows him to focus on taking and making shots that are advantageous.
It makes his life easier and loosens the mental strain that comes with reading a rotating defense on every possession. Instead of setting guys up, all Pierce has to do is finish.
(Lineups that feature Pierce and Williams are averaging 110.6 points per 100 possessions, a figure that’d slot them as the fourth-best offense this season.)
According to SportVU, Pierce is averaging just 2.3 pull-up attempts per game, fewer than Patty Mills, C.J. Miles and teammate Alan Anderson. He’s yet to attempt a pull-up three-pointer, which indicates the ball hasn't been in his hands during a hapless situation, such as with the shot clock winding down. On the other hand, he’s averaging 4.3 catch-and-shoot attempts per game, with 3.5 coming on threes.
Here's Pierce rolling off a high pin-down screen set by Kevin Garnett. It's a sequence we saw plenty of last year in Boston, when Doc Rivers tried to get his best scorer easier looks at the basket. This specific look is technically a pull-up jumper, but more times than not Pierce will curl around the screen and immediately shoot the ball.
He’s still attacking the basket, occasionally, in situations where a path is clear. But there’s almost no pick-and-roll initiation or plays set up for Pierce to isolate. His 3.0 assists per game are the lowest they’ve been since he was 22 years old back in 2000 (his second season).
There are still instances where Pierce can take his man off the dribble, but they aren't common. He showed considerable difficulty getting his own shot the past couple years and should no longer be the center of any offense’s game plan. Brooklyn knows that.
Pierce's current situation is perfect, and the Nets are so far using him in ways that suit both parties. When the season ends, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Pierce post career-low per-game numbers across the board. But if the stars around him continue to draw the attention of opposing defenses, Pierce could have the most efficient season of his Hall of Fame career.