For just the second time in his 16-year NBA career, Paul Pierce will be setting up shop inside the visitor's locker room of the TD Bank Garden when his Brooklyn Nets meet the Boston Celtics Friday night.
His next stop in Boston shouldn't be nearly as brief.
An unrestricted free agent at season's end, Pierce should end his NBA journey in the same place where it all started.
Building a Legacy
The longtime Celtics captain spent his first 15 seasons with the franchise. During his tenure he was selected to 10 All-Star Games, played in two NBA Finals and helped capture the 2008 title—No. 17 in the organization's history.
Drafted 10th overall in 1998, Pierce donned Celtics green up until he was sent to Brooklyn as part of a nine-player trade last summer.
While he's physically left Boston, his legacy hasn't budged. Neither have his numerous entries into the Celtics' history books.
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"He is the greatest scorer in Celtic history," Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe wrote in 2012. "And he might be the toughest non-hockey player in the history of our town."
Pierce was "Boston Strong" long before the phrase rallied the city.
Never the fastest nor most athletic player, he attacked the hardwood with an easy-to-admire blend of talent, toughness and tenacity. He willed himself past opponents, carrying the city and franchise on his back the whole way.
With a blue-collar approach and white-collar ability, Pierce captivated a market that had hosted some of the biggest names in basketball history: Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Larry Bird.
Greatness was demanded by the fanbase, and greatness was delivered by Pierce.
An Emotional Return
His first trip back to the Garden, an 85-79 Nets win on Jan. 26, showed how deeply he'd ingrained himself into the franchise after a moving video tribute brought the fans to their feet and Pierce to the brink of tears.
"This was the toughest game I ever had to play," he said afterward, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "Tougher than any championship game, or Game 7."
His return visit shouldn't be quite as distracting.
For one, it's only him going back this time, not Kevin Garnett. The big man has missed three straight games with back spasms and did not accompany the team to Boston, per Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe.
Also, Brooklyn is starting to find its rhythm and its way up the Eastern Conference standings. Winners of four straight, the Nets (30-29) currently hold the No. 6 seed. The fact that his team is bearing down for the stretch run should make it easier to focus on the task at hand.
Still, it won't be just another game. Pierce knows that.
"I think as long as I'm in the NBA, it's still going to be a little emotional for me," he said, via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York. "I played so many regular-season games, so many big games on that floor. So many memories that are never going to go away on that floor."
But who says he can't yet make new ones?
Pierce's offseason exit wasn't so much about keeping him in the championship race as it was helping the Celtics prepare for their own run. His age (he turned 36 in October) and salary ($15.3 million) didn't mesh with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge's vision for the future.
Pierce was willing to go—he even helped convince Garnett to waive his no-trade clause. But that decision was ultimately made by Ainge, not Pierce.
"I loved it here," he said before his first homecoming game this season, via ESPN Boston's Jackie MacMullan. "Never wanted to leave."
He wanted to retire a Celtic and still wants to come back, which I think is a possibility. Paul’s contract is up at the end of this year, and the question is does he want to continue to play or not? I asked him directly last night and he really left the door wide open. He said he would come back and work in the front office, assistant coach, he smiled and said he would come back as a player and really smiled and said he would come back as a broadcaster. Paul wants to stay in basketball, and his heart remains in Boston.
He deserves to have a curtain call as something more than an uncomfortable visitor.
The Proper Send-Off
Is he still a $15-plus-million player at this point? Absolutely not. His scoring has plummeted to a career low (13.5 points per game) as has his player efficiency rating (16.2).
But he wouldn't—or shouldn't, at least—be looking for that type of coin on the open market. He can read the stat sheet like anyone else. He knows the figures don't add up.
What should be the going rate for his swan song? The price should be cheap enough to make this a no-brainer on Boston's end. The Celtics have $50.8 million tied up in guaranteed contracts for next season, leaving them more than enough wiggle room to bring back their old captain at a severely discounted rate.
Boston's roster isn't as young as Ainge would like, but it's still green enough that someone with Pierce's level of experience could make a massive impact inside the locker room. He might not help them win a lot of games next season—I'm not sure anyone could—but that boost in development he could bring might be felt a little further down the road.
As for Pierce, he didn't get his wish to be a Celtic lifer, so retiring with his franchise might be the next best thing. It would also ease his transition into the next stage of his life, a period he already envisioned taking place in Boston. He said back in September, via Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe:
Ultimately, what I would like to do is have a business in Boston. Maybe like a sports bar. I would love to do something like that here...I am going to still have relationships here. I’m always going to come to this city. Every year, when I’m done, I’m going to have a reason to come here...Who knows? I may be working for Wyc Grousbeck or Danny Ainge.
Pierce's heart still resides in Beantown, and that feeling flows right back at him from the city.
Leaving all of that behind was emotional. Coming back for a brief stop wasn't any easier.
A permanent return would be just as emotional—only these waterworks would be reserved for tears of unrestrainable joy.
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