Throughout the beginning of this season, one of the things people seem keen on focusing on is the apparent decline of several of the league’s once-prominent players. Whether it’s been Jamal Crawford, Kobe Bryant, or even Joe Johnson, aging players who are struggling right now are one of the biggest talking points across the web. While one member of the Los Angeles Clippers was already mentioned, it’s another who has been a relative no-show throughout the first seven games. It looks like Father Time might be winning another battle.
When the Clippers signed Paul Pierce this offseason, one of the thoughts going around was that they finally had someone who they can trust either late in games or as the starting small forward. As we have gone through the preseason and first seven games of the regular season, it seems quite clear that Pierce will not be the starting small forward. On top of that, Pierce has shown he might not even be a reliable late-game option right now.
Last night against the Memphis Grizzlies, Pierce made history – and not the good kind of history. For the first time in his 18-year career, Pierce managed to play at least 20 minutes in a game and go scoreless. Counting playoffs, it took 1415 career games for something like that to take place. That alone doesn’t mean he’s playing horribly. His play on the court says that a lot more. The normally reliable Pierce is currently sporting career-lows in field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Even if you extrapolate his statistics to a Per 36 minute basis, Pierce is only averaging 9.3 points. That, too, would be a career-low.
Due to his time coming off the bench, it shouldn’t be of any surprise that Pierce currently sports a negative Net Rating (-3.6). However, even in 23 minutes, Pierce still only has a +0.5 Net Rating when on the floor with Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. It’s not that Pierce isn’t trying. He clearly is. It’s just that he’s not even making much of a difference, if at all.
So far, Pierce has taken 36 field goal attempts. Only 4 of those 36 have come from inside of 8 feet. He’s turned into a perimeter oriented player that lives off of threes and tough mid-range jumpers. From 8-to-24 feet, Pierce is 5-of-7. Nearly all of those attempts are highly-contested shots that Pierce has made a living off of making. The issue, though, is that Pierce is just 5-of-25 from three, with 17 of those attempts coming above-the-break. He’s only made 4 of those 17. It’s even worse from the corners, where Pierce is just 1-of-8. The one make was the corner three late against the Houston Rockets that tied the game.
According to SportVU, 20 of Pierce’s 36 field goal attempts have been of the uncontested variety – i.e. a defender is 4 feet or more away when the shot goes up. Pierce has only made 35.0 percent of those shots. Theoretically, those numbers should increase as he gets more and more attempts. Pierce was always an adept shot-maker. That shouldn’t change. However, it seems like it has somewhat. Pierce is only 5-of-18 (27.8 percent) on uncontested threes. Last season, he made 42.5 percent of uncontested threes and 48.5 percent of all uncontested shots.
It’s not just the offensive end where Pierce is struggling to get the job done; his defense has really suffered to start the season. According to Shot Analytics, Pierce has been the primary defender on 46 shots this season. Opponents have made half of them. That’s not ideal for a defender. Opponents are even shooting 55.3 percent on two-point attempts against him. A lot of Pierce’s issues stem from him being the power forward in small ball lineups, which has seen opponents shoot 70.6 percent against him from within 5 feet of the rim. You can make up for porous defense with good offense, but Pierce hasn’t done it on either side of the floor thus far this season.
Looking old and being old are two vastly different things. For much of the past few seasons, Pierce has been old but not looked it. This year, early on, he definitely looks old. His movements around the court look slower, more pained, and less impactful. Defenses still respect him because of the name on the back of jersey rather than the game he’s currently showing everyone. For now, that actually helps the team. Pierce should get better as the season goes along, but you just never know how Father Time will hit everyone.
It’s not as if Pierce is a ball-dominant player out there. Quite often you can find Pierce standing at the top of the arc or in a corner awaiting a pass. He rarely handles the ball much, if at all. In fact, Pierce only averages 0.8 dribbles per touch this season. That number ranks eighth on the Clippers among all players who have at least played a minute this year. The ball hits his hands and then quickly leaves it. He’s become a complimentary piece with the team, and that might be what ends up saving him going forward this year.
The other aging once-superstars such as Bryant, Crawford, and Johnson are enduring high usage seasons with low-efficiency. Pierce, on the other hand, isn’t using a ton of possessions despite his subpar efficiency numbers. That could be the thing that ultimately helps since he doesn’t have to do heavy lifting or doesn’t have to dribble a ton to get where he wants or even doesn’t have to play a ton of minutes which wear his legs down. The other players, namely Bryant and Johnson, are playing heavy minutes and killing their teams. Pierce, and to a far lesser extent Crawford, is seeing solid minutes but not team-crushing minutes.
The reality of the situation is that Pierce is a 38-year old combo forward who can sometimes play small forward depending on matchups, but most likely is a small ball power forward due to his physical limitations now. After 18 seasons in the league and just over 50,000 career minutes, legs start to get weary and shots start to fade. The best bet for Pierce to turn around this shaky start is still just being a catch-and-shoot three-point specialist. While the numbers don’t support that theory now, they should by the end of the season.
All told, what Pierce does right now is of little consequence. He’s more or less trying to preserve his body for the eventual playoff run in about five months. The issue is that he looks so off at this moment in time that the five months between now and the playoffs will seem like an agonizingly long time. Father Time is undefeated, as they say. We’re seeing that with some of the players this season. As of this second, Pierce is alongside those players. In a few months, or even maybe a few weeks, that could all change. But, right now, Father Time is winning. Pierce’s legs look less lively, his shot looks way off, and his defense is plodding and painful.
The Truth hasn’t set anyone free; not yet at least.