Since the Clippers drafted Blake Griffin first overall back in 2009, they've been struggling to find him a consistent complementary small forward to play with. They drafted Al-Farouq Aminu with the No. 8 overall pick in 2010, but quickly shipped him out in the Chris Paul trade after one season. Caron Butler was signed during the same offseason that CP3 was brought in, but he brought little outside of jab-stepping his way into contested long-twos. Jared Dudley's lone season as a Clipper was an injury-riddled mess, so Doc Rivers prematurely sent him to Milwaukee in exchange for nothing. Matt Barnes was a serviceable starting SF for the three seasons he was around, but he always felt like a placeholder.
Grant Hill, Ryan Gomes, Danny Granger, Nick Young, Jordan Hamilton and Jamario Moon are a few other names that came aboard and tried to earn that spot, but none stuck. We know what's transpired this season with the likes of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson, Lance Stephenson, Jeff Green and Paul Pierce all riding the starting small forward merry-go-round. It's been the Clippers' weakest position once again this season.
Pierce was the first of those four to sign on last summer after he famously waffled over the decision of whether to retire. He inked a three-year deal to return to his home town and reunite with Rivers, with whom he won a title in Boston back in 2008. The idea coming into the year was to ease him through the regular season and have him ready to do his thing come playoff time, as was the case last season when he was with the Wizards.
During the season in Washington, Pierce coasted through 73 games on a career-low 26.2 minutes per. His offense was passable, as he averaged about 12 points on very solid 39% shooting from three-point range. His job was to just help some of the Wizards' kids (John Wall, Bradley Beal) through the season and hit a few shots here and there.
Once the playoffs rolled around, though, we saw that vintage Paul Pierce still existed in some form. In 10 postseason games with Washington, Pierce's scoring average jumped to nearly 15 points in about 30 minutes per game on blistering 52% shooting from deep. He also did this:
Fast forward about a year to present day Paul Pierce, who's slogging his way through an absolutely atrocious campaign with the Clippers. He's been overextended thanks in large part to the Blake Griffin injury, and is averaging career-worsts across the board.
He has been tasked with banging with power forwards, which is a suboptimal position for a 38-year-old that has logged well over 45,000 minutes in the regular season alone over the course of his 18-year career. His vertical is approximately three inches these days. Pierce excelled as a small-ball four in the postseason with Washington last year, but forcing him to play it for extended minutes this season has proved disastrous.
There really isn't much reason to believe Pierce is going to suddenly turn it on once the Clippers find themselves in the playoffs. His postseason outburst last season was preceded by a fairly decent regular season showing. The highest percentage he's shot in any month this season was 40% from the field in February. Pierce is now too slow to guard wings and isn't tall or athletic enough to contain most bigs.
This play from Sunday's brutal loss in New Orleans sums up Pierce's defensive struggles pretty well:
He gets switched on to a guard, Toney Douglas, who easily leaves Pierce in his dust with a crossover. Paul then gets stuck trying to bang for the rebound with noted giant Omer Asik and his only choice is to foul rather than concede the offensive board. This just isn't a tenable situation for the Clippers.
Pierce has a positive net rating (1.2), but that can largely be attributed to the fact that he plays a lot of his minutes alongside Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick. In the 32 games he's started, his net rating is a solid 7.6. In the 28 games in which he's come off the bench this season (I.E. not playing alongside starters as much)? All the way down to -7.8. The rest of the starters are essentially carrying his dead weight when he's out there.
Pierce's decline shouldn't be a surprise in an of itself because it was inevitably happening at some point. He's 38 and has been in the league since 1998. Father Time is undefeated, you know. The sharpness and quickness with which Pierce has gone downhill is the most surprising part of it. Going from being a 45% shooter and 39% three-point shooter to a 35% shooter and 31% three-point shooter is a substantial dip to make in just a year. The Clippers could likely live with his defensive deficiencies in limited minutes if he was providing some capable offense and helping space the floor, but he isn't.
Pierce has a reputation for ratcheting things up during the postseason, but to expect him to suddenly find his old form once the games really count next month is just grasping at straws. It's sad to see a surefire future Hall-of-Famer and one of the greatest players of his generation playing the way he has this season, but the reality facing Doc Rivers and the Clippers is that Pierce just isn't a viable option anymore. To be blunt, Paul Pierce has been the worst Clipper this season and it isn't particularly close.
Rivers has cut Pierce's minutes - particularly in second halves of games - as the season has progressed, but you can bet Doc will deploy him during crucial stretches in playoff games. He'll be hoping, like the rest of us, that Pierce will suddenly figure it out. Loyalty is a fine trait to have, at least until it becomes actively harmful. Doc is renowned (especially on basketball Twitter) for being irrationally tied to players he coached with the Celtics. Pierce will be out there, and, based on the way he's played all season long, it will be painful.
Here's hoping Paul can turn it around and recapture that old magic, but it's hard to envision at this point. The other options (Green, Johnson, Mbah a Moute) aren't much to get excited about, but all three bring more to the table than the shell of The Truth we've seen this season.
All stats and video courtesy of NBA.com/stats. You can follow this writer on Twitter @TaylorBojangles.