And now, standing 6'7", from the university of Kansas, playing in his 12th season, the starting Small Forward for your Boston Celtics....
Pop quiz--what do Michael Olowakandi, Mike Bibby, Raef LaFrentz, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Robert Traylor, Jason Williams, Larry Hughes, and Dirk Nowitzki all have in common?
Answer: In 1998, Paul Pierce thought he was better than all of them. Yet he was drafted 10th overall, in back of those guys. It was a slap in the face for him, and he vowed to prove those 9 GM's wrong for passing him up. 12 years later and tons of accomplishments later, he's the only one who has a sparkling championship ring on his finger.
Sure Vince has had a more colorful career, and has a slightly higher career scoring average, but Pierce also has had a tremendous career, and has always been recognized as the more versatile scorer. Dirk Nowitzki gets a lot of respect for his scoring ability, but Pierce edges him out. Really, taking any one of these three players in the '98 draft would have been a blessing, but for us to end up with Pierce with the 10th pick was truly a steal.
But to appreciate Pierce, you have to look at what he's been able to accomplish in spite of not having a lot of natural physical tools. As a bigger wing player, Pierce doesn't have much spring in his legs to out jump his defender. So to find ways to score from the perimeter, he's had to learn the art of the "step back jumper", which has become his bread and butter signature move over the years.
Pierce also isn't blessed with foot speed and quickness to blow by his man to get into the driving lanes. So Pierce worked hard one summer and developed a lethal spin move, and it remains a move that defenders struggle with.
Pierce also isn't blessed with a lot of athleticism which would allow him to contour his body and execute acrobatic layups in traffic like Jordan used to. Here, Pierce has learned how to use his strong body to absorb contact and get to the free throw line or finish layups with either hand.
But what may be Pierce's most valuable asset is his toughness. Its his toughness that braves him to drive into the heart of defenses and take the beatings and come back for more. Its his toughness that makes him stand tall and face all challenges (like proving that he's better than all the players who were drafted in front of him). And its his toughness that has made him play through pain throughout his career, and still perform to his high standards.
He may get shot at, but he'll come right back and not skip a beat. He may get his teeth knocked out, and have surgery to put them back in, but he's not going to miss a game. And his shooting elbow may be swollen like a huge water balloon, and it may hurt even to lift his arm up, but he's going to take the last shot and win the game for his team.
Pierce has proved his critics wrong at every turn, and so they came up with new criticisms to keep him at bay. They said that Pierce will have some trouble sharing the ball with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (implying that Pierce cares more about his daunting scoring stats than winning a championship). But it turned out to be a foolish assessment, as Pierce instantly bonded with his new teammates, and found the right balance of deferring and asserting himself in the offense. His 19.6 scoring average was the lowest total since his sophomore year in the league, but he wasn't phased by that because he was now a champion.
I'm not going to pretend that I've been a big Paul Pierce fan his entire career. But I will acknowledge that I have seen Pierce's game blossom and I've seen him mature as a player, and I will say that I've looked much more favorably at Paul Pierce these past two years than over the 10 years prior to this. He's grown on me and gained my approval.
At this moment, I can honestly say that if Pierce chose to retire today, he will go down as one of the greatest Celtic to ever play the game, and one of the best wing players of his generation.
So what is left for Pierce to improve?
From a team standpoint, he just needs to continue to be an excellent team player. But from an individual standpoint, here are some things I'd like to see Pierce improve:
Cut down turnovers. Paul has always been an excellent passing wing player. His career 4 apg average is higher than most of his peers at the same position. But because he does a lot of passing, there's a greater risk of him turning the ball over. As a team, we are among the worst in the league in turnovers, and Pierce is one of the culprits. Cut down turnovers, and we'll be an even better team (just ask Doc).
Increase his defensive stats. Early in his career, Pierce was nearly a 2 steals per game--1 block per game guy (which put him in some real select company). Last year, he averaged a steal per game, and posted a 0.3 bpg average--both tying his career lows. I would like to see him bring up his defensive level a notch higher and get more recognition for his defense.
Thirdly, I'd like to see Pierce reinforce his presence in the post. I'd like to see Pierce back his man down closer to the basket more and use fadeaways and drop steps and open up a whole new world of offensive possibilities, which will help reinvent his career and allow him to prolong his playing days.
**If this is all I can nitpick about Pierce's game, it speaks volume of how good he really is.
Pop Quiz: How many of those 9 teams would draft Pierce if given the chance to do the draft over again?
Answer: Probably every team aside from Dallas and Toronto would take Pierce. You want to bet that Milwaukee regrets taking Tractor Traylor with the 6th pick when Pierce was there for the taking?
The luck of the Irish was clearly with us on that fateful day