After failing to advance beyond the second round last year, the Los Angeles Clippers went into this offseason with their eyes set on trying to improve the roster enough to get them over that hump. They were lacking some semblance of veteran leadership, as well as a high-quality shot maker down the stretch who could help take pressure off of the offense in those late game situations. In walks veteran, and eventual Hall of Famer, Paul Pierce. While his team also lost in the second round, Pierce did everything to keep them afloat. Now, he comes back to where he grew up in order to help a hometown team do something special. Can he? Or, like those before him, will he simply just not be the difference maker the team had hoped?
We’re now entering Paul Pierce’s 18th season in the NBA and he’s, now, been part of four separate organizations. The first 15 years of his career were spent with the Boston Celtics and he etched his name alongside the immortals in Beantown. In 2008, he helped guide the Celtics to a championship and earned Finals MVP honors in the process. However, it hasn’t been all rosy for Pierce since then. The Celtics, as part of their rebuilding plan, sent him to the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2013 only for him to play one year there. After that, he signed on to play with the Washington Wizards and he spent last year with them before opting for free agency. And now he finds himself back home in Los Angeles.
There are no illusions as to what Pierce is at this juncture of his career. He is a systematic shot maker who is nothing more than a complimentary piece for a team that has everything else already in place. Thankfully, the Clippers appear to be a team with everything in place for him to succeed. They already feature a great ball-handling point guard who can both score and distribute the ball at elite levels, as well as a shooting guard who can move within the flow of an offense to generate open shots for not only himself but others. Then there’s the do-it-all stud power forward and the defensively dominant center. In some ways, you could choose to look at the Clippers as being similar to those Boston teams. But not all ways. That’s where Pierce’s presence will be felt the most; in the cracks.
It’s not as simple as Pierce slipping into Matt Barnes’ old spot as the starting small forward, though. There is an opportunity there for Pierce to take the job, but he’s in a tight battle with fellow newcomer Wesley Johnson for that title. Should he win that battle, though, Pierce will be put in a position to succeed from the outset. After all, one of Barnes’ jobs was to simply stand in the corner and hit a high volume of threes. Last season, Barnes shot 37.2 percent on catch-and-shoot threes and 35.5 percent on uncontested threes. Pierce shot 40.5 percent in both departments. Despite their minuscule looks, an extra three percent and five percent, respectively, are a rather large increase.
Only 69.7 percent of Pierce’s three-point attempts last season were uncontested. When compared to Barnes’ 88.9 percent uncontested rate, you can see where the excitement for Pierce’s possible season comes from. Think of how many more uncontested threes Pierce will have playing alongside the likes of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. Due to the gravity of the pick-and-roll, it’s certainly plausible that one of two things will happen; either (a) teams will continue overhelping off the corner and leaving the shooter open or (b) they’ll stay glued to Pierce and leave more room for the pick-and-roll characters to operate. Either way, the offense benefits by just having Pierce on the court no matter what. He’s going to hit open shots at a high rate and he’s going to keep defenses honest in a way a small forward hasn’t done here in quite some time.
As we have seen already in the preseason through two games, Doc Rivers does like to use Pierce as the small-ball power forward with the bench unit. That’s where he can also make an impact as most teams still lack capable power forwards who can defend in space on the perimeter. Pierce’s ability to still hit shots off the dribble – he shot 52.8 percent last season on all attempts that had at least 3 dribbles – is renowned throughout the league due to his savvy nature. He’s able to use his body and length to get shots off against even the most ardent of defenders. Whether he’s beating you with his veteran knowhow off the bounce or sitting idly by in the corner awaiting a pass for a three-point attempt, Pierce’s offensive prowess cannot be understated for this team. In a league that preaches spacing, Pierce supplies more than they’ve had out of a possible small forward. That’s the upside offensively with him.
Defensively, it’s not great. We’re a far cry from his glory days, but Pierce can still bring it on that end in spurts. He still knows how to move his feet – albeit not well – and work the refs on that end of the floor. That’s the downside to Pierce as the small forward; the defense. In a league with notable players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Carmelo Anthony, the issue will always be defense with the Clippers’ starting small forward spot. This is where Doc’s insistence on playing Pierce at power forward for some minutes can come in handy. It saves Pierce from having to use his body in space and rather has him use it in other areas to preserve him for the year.
The Clippers title hopes don’t hinge upon Pierce’s play, but they do go hand-in-hand in some instances. Pierce’s big shot ability, veteran calm down the stretch of tight games, and “been there before” attitude will be big things that he brings a team that’s lacked some of those qualities lately. It’s hard to say how Pierce’s season will go. He scored only roughly 12 points per game last year with the Wizards, but he hit a lot of big shots and enjoyed a great season shooting from three. He’s moving from the great passing and vision of John Wall to one of the greatest point guards in NBA history – Chris Paul. If Pierce can duplicate what he did last season, then this team will surely enjoy a heck of a year. If Pierce struggles, though, then the team will possibly struggle with him and the games will become harder than they need to be.
Sooner or later, Father Time catches up with all of us. Pierce will turn 38 years old in a couple days and there’s no telling how many more games his legs can handle. His minutes and points per game have decreased each of the last three years, but he’s grown more efficient over that time, as well. The Pierce who dominated all those years ago is long gone now. What remains is a man who has seen nearly everything a player can see in this league and is still trudging along. He’s the old dog that was adopted by the new family; it’s up to the family to help take care of him so that he can protect them when they need him most. Pierce isn’t your typical aging veteran. He’s not jaded. He’s still hungry. And he has no illusions as to what he is.
If last year was any indication, Paul Pierce has plenty left in the tank to help the Los Angeles Clippers this season. If they achieve the ultimate goal, then this season will be the last time you ever see Pierce lace ‘em up, as he said he would retire if the team won a title this year. Either way, we will probably be witnessing the end of one of the greatest careers in NBA history. It will take place as the team walks hand-in-hand down a lonely road lined with the homes of nonbelievers. At the forefront of the pack leading them down the road will be a small forward from Los Angeles; a player who was bred for big moments and adores the boos opposing fans heave at him. He will talk smack and smile.
It’s because he knows he’s proven one thing time and time again.
The Truth hurts.