Should Boston Celtics Bring Back Paul Pierce in Free Agency?

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Should Boston Celtics Bring Back Paul Pierce in Free Agency?
Steven Senne/Associated Press
Pierce had an emotional return to Boston in January.

Paul Pierce was the voice, idol and elbow-jumper of an entire generation of Boston sports fans. 

He managed to bridge the Boston Celtics' gap, keeping interest just high enough that they weren't starting from the ground up in New Englanders' eyes back in 2007.

He played 15 years in a green and white jersey and is the second-leading scorer in franchise history. Then, last summer, he was traded by Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to the Brooklyn Nets.

However, at the time of that trade, Pierce had just one year remaining on his contract. After pulling in a nice $15.33 million, he will become an unrestricted free agent, able to sign with any of 30 NBA teams, or opt to hang up the sneakers for good.

So then, as the Disney script would go, the fan-favorite star would return home for a swan-song season. Pierce could chose to rejoin Boston on a one-year deal, closing the romantic tale of finishing his career where it began way back in June of 1998, sandwiched between Dirk Nowitzki and Bonzi Wells.

It took me a while to come around on the Brooklyn trade this summer, and there is part of me that still thinks with a healthy Rondo, that group was a second-round playoff team and could've threatened for a conference finals berth.

Growing up and experiencing each level of Pierce's career, and seeing how those moments aligned with those of my own adolescence, was big. I've spoken with many fans who feel and felt the same way. While Pierce's departure has certainly helped the path toward objectivity, it wasn't easy seeing him in black and white duds. For much of the 2013-14 season, it didn't look like he felt totally comfortable in them either.

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However, along that path to objectivity was the obvious conclusion. That trade was a haul for Ainge and the Celtics. The number of picks they brought back, while not terribly sacrificing financial flexibility, is incredible and it was the right move to make for the future of the franchise.

Now, with Pierce looking like he will be available this summer, there is a small groundswell to bring him back. Lateral moves aren't helping this rebuild though, and the risk is high while throwing that kind of monkey wrench into the process. Talent-wise, he isn't going to set them back, and financially it would likely be a fairly inexpensive one-year deal (possibly with a hand-shake deal for a management position afterwards).

Back in March, after Boston topped the Nets, in relation to a possible return, Pierce told The Boston Globe's Baxter Holmes, "Yeah, why not? Maybe play for them, maybe work for them."

He has definitely showed up in this opening-round playoff series with the Toronto Raptors. Pierce has had some huge fourth-quarter moments and is overall averaging 14.4 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting.

NBA.com/stats
Paul Pierce's 2014 playoff shot chart.

However, in Game 5, he disappeared on the bench in the fourth quarter. Jason Kidd opted to go with the hot hands, but that isn't something that happens to a player who 100 percent still has it. The Pierce that Celtics fans want to bring back doesn't get benched while Andray Blatche and Alan Anderson see big, important minutes. 

If Pierce were to come back to Boston, he isn't the same guy who left. He averaged a career-low 28 minutes per game this season and came off the bench seven times. Pierce is largely a background player at this stage.

He still has that closer mentality, as well as the guts to make late-game decisions and succeed, but those high-scoring duels are few and far between. He crossed 20 points just 11 times in 75 games this season.

Small forward Jeff Green is still under contract as a Celtic next year, and Gerald Wallace is behind him with a nearly immovable contract, (two years, $20.2 million). Green could be dealt this summer, but Ainge worked incredibly hard and sacrificed a lot to get him to Boston and keep him there. While it hasn't worked out yet, I'm not sure he is willing to cut his losses on that front. 

As it is, it is always difficult to play a background role in a place where you were once a star. Of course, the opening fanfare would be excellent, just like when he and Kevin Garnett first returned to the TD Garden this season. The aftermath, however, the other 40 or so games when the novelty wears off, can be brutal. Crowds that used to chant your nickname constantly and wear No. 34 jerseys are slowly dwindling and changing. 

Ray Allen couldn't handle it and left money on the table to play with the Miami Heat. Could Pierce handle being a secondary piece, and are those really the memories Boston fans want to end that relationship with?

Pierce has very little to come back for. He'll still be a Celtic in the Hall of-Fame, and his number will be hoisted into the rafters some day. In the physical world, there isn't much to gain on his end with a return. He didn't leave disgraced or in an offensive way like LeBron James and Cleveland. Boston still loves him and will continue to.

Being Boston's all-time leading scorer isn't really in play anymore, especially with the lost 1,010 points from this year. Were he to return, he is still 3,804 points shy of John Havlicek.

Beyond what being relegated to a second unit could do to Pierce and our memories of him, the message it sends to the current team is scarier. 

What kind of message does bringing him back send to Rondo? Pierce vacated his captainship when he was traded to Brooklyn. Rondo was just awarded it on his first game back this past season. In Boston, that is something that is taken very seriously. Some very big names have had that title bestowed upon them.

So, if Pierce returns, does he become a co-captain or something? Even if the title, which in reality may be just that, is glossed over, the message lingers. 

Rondo was given a year to test his leadership waters, and management didn't like what they saw. 

Rondo, who isn't always the most level-headed guy as it is, could perceive this as a slight. Management had such questions about whether he could be a legitimate leader for the franchise, they had to bring in the old guy as a figurehead to watch over and check him. They made a decision to label Rondo as the new captain of a new era. Bringing back Pierce may not be a backwards move on the court, but in the mind, it is.

This isn't to say that the two wouldn't get along. The Pierce-Rondo relationship never got as much ink as the Allen-Rondo or Rivers-Rondo relationships did. That is probably because the two were actually friends.

"Me and Rondo share a special bond,” Pierce told Holmes in that same piece for The Boston Globe. "We’ll always be friends. We always have something in common, with our championship [in 2008]. Our kids, they still hang out together. They hung out for his birthday, actually. So, Rondo, I respect him and him moving forward with this franchise and it’ll always be that way."

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Of course, the Celtics do need a veteran presence on this roster. Having someone there capable of checking and balancing Rondo is incredibly important. But bringing in Pierce goes beyond that. 

You are also taking minutes and shots away from those two rookies who will be coming in this summer. Shots that could go to making Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger into legitimate NBA players go to Pierce in an effort to make the signing worth it.

The attraction of winning in the short-term, after a dreadful losing season, could be tempting for second-year head coach Brad Stevens. That could lead to a fair amount of Pierce, who had a highly efficient season in Brooklyn and took 9.5 shots per game.

This is at best a lateral move. After a year-plus of making decisions without emotional interference, would Ainge suddenly jump-stop and reverse to make a move he deems for the better of his fanbase's psyche?

I don't think that is who Ainge is. He went through a lot and put fans through a lot to close the window on one era and is pushing hard to usher in another. He isn't one to hedge, and nor is Pierce for that matter.

I'd rather remember Paul for that than get to watch him in Celtic green one more time.

 

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