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Clippers Off-Season 2016: Can Paul Pierce Bounce Back?

The former NBA Finals MVP was a disappointment last year. What can he bring to the table if he doesn't retire?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Pierce is an NBA Hall of Famer, but 2016 Paul Pierce was one of the worst rotation players in the league.  He shot just 36.3% from the field and 31% from deep while struggling to defend or rebound at anywhere near acceptable rates.  By all accounts, he looked like he pushed his body for one season too many, and his play suffered severely for it.  It was an unfortunate outcome for a Clippers team that had just seen The Truth shoot 39% from deep the year before in Washington and 52% from deep in the playoffs.  The Truth was nowhere to be found in Los Angeles this year, just old man Pierce.

At 38 years of age, he completed just the sixteenth season in NBA history where a player 38 or older played 500 or more minutes and shot 40% or less from the field.  Of course, there are far more factors in a player's decline than FG%, but setting the mark at 40% or below limits our search to incredibly inefficient players.  Anyone who has an opportunity to play at age 38 was likely a very good player at some point, making a sub-40% FG% very poor.  Oddly enough, one of the other 16 occurrences of this was 2015-16 Pablo Prigioni.  On a related note, it might be time for the Clippers to get a little younger this off-season.

These 16 seasons have been recorded by 12 players (Derek Fisher, Vince Carter, Jason Kidd, and Clifford Robinson are the repeat offenders), and all have occurred since 2000.  We know that in rare instances, great players can continue to contribute long past a normal retirement age (cough*Tim Duncan*cough).  We also know that plenty of good players stay in the league too long, doing their legacy a disservice by grasping for a level of play that is no longer attainable.

The pertinent question in the case of Paul Pierce is this: of these 16 times that a very old player completed a season shooting under 40% from the field in a sizable amount of minutes, did anyone ever bounce back?  Is there any reason to be optimistic that Pierce could work his way back into a positive role?  Even if there's no precedent, someone has to be the first, but that reality would seem to indicate that retirement would be the right move for Paul.

  • In the 2000-2001 season, Sam Perkins played his final year at age 39.  He scored just 3.8 points per game while playing his fewest minutes per game ever, and he retired after the year.
  • In the 2001-2002 season, Charles Oakley also scored just 3.8 points per game as a 38-year old.  Statistically, he was a shadow of his former self, and while he appeared in each of the next two seasons, neither was impactful (he did play 514 minutes in '02-'03, but his 41% FG shooting was on only 23-55 attempts).
  • In the 2003-2004 season, Mark Jackson played 42 abysmal games for the Houston Rockets, posting an eFG% of just 37.5%.  That was the last season he would play in his career.
  • In 2004-2005, Clifford Robinson appeared to be on the decline, shooting just 38.6% from the field.  He also shot under 40% from the field each of the two prior years.  However, the next season, in '05-'06, Robinson played more minutes and scored more points, shooting 42.7% from the field.  The next year, '06-'07, was Robinson's final campaign, as he re-entered our infamous club at age 40.
  • In 2006-2007, Gary Payton shot under 40% from the field for the first time in his career, and he did not play in the NBA beyond that point.  An 11-time All-Star, he scored just 5.3 points per game in his last season.
  • In 2007-2008, 39-year-old Darrell Armstrong, a career role player, shot poorly enough to make our list at 36.4%.  He did not play in the league again after that season.
  • In 2012-13, Jerry Stackhouse finally retired after a long fight against father time.  Stackhouse didn't meed the 500 minutes played requirement at ages 34, 36, and 37, and he barely shot 40% from the field in 35.  This is an example of a long, drawn-out decline for a former All-Star, culminating with one last bad partial season with Brooklyn in 2013.
  • In 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, Jason Kidd shot abysmally from the field, buoying his efficiency with average three-point shooting, but providing value in other areas.  Throughout his career, Kidd was just a 40.0% FG shooter, making this benchmark of poor shooting somewhat routine for him.  He was the starting point guard on a Mavericks championship team in 2010-11 (at age 37) despite shooting just 36% from the field.  After three straight sub-40% seasons he retired.
  • Derek Fisher is another guard whose career FG% betrays this benchmark: at just 39.9% career, it's hard to judge him based on sub-40% seasons.  Fisher had an abysmal year on a small sample size at age 38 (34.2% FG on 161 attempts in 575 minutes) before having a still-bad "rebound" year with the Thunder at age 39 (39.1% FG on 361 attempts in 1428 minutes).  Notably, Fisher still shot well from deep in each of those  two seasons.
  • Vince Carter has made the list each of the last two seasons, but like Fisher, he had a still-bad "rebound" year in his second stint on the list.  After shooting 33.3% from the field and 29.7% from deep at age 38 two years ago, he surged back to 38.8% from the field and 34.9% from deep this past season, playing the same amount of minutes for the same team.
These are the players that we've seen go through Paul Pierce's struggle at his age since the turn of the century.  There isn't evidence to support any claims that a continued decline is inevitable, but even the best "bounce-back" stories don't feature a whole lot of bouncing back.  Derek Fisher shot well from three at age 39, but he never lost his three-point shot.  Vince Carter lost his shot and then found it again, but even his most recent season wasn't especially good.  If Paul Pierce returned and shot 39% from the field and 35% from deep, would he earn favor back with Clippers fans?  It's certainly better than the reality of last season, but it might be best for Paul to retire either way.

One thing that I can't measure by looking up statistics is context.  I know that Paul Pierce looked finished this season.  His body failed him night in and night out on the court, and through that, he failed his teammates time and again on both ends, missing open shots and blowing defensive assignments and boxouts (including allowing a critical offensive rebound to Gerald Henderson following a missed free throw in the waning minutes of an elimination game).  Did Clifford Robinson look that finished in before his moderate resurgence?  Did Fisher and Carter look that finished before their sad bounce-backs?

Ultimately, these findings don't paint a rosy picture for Paul Pierce's future.  Even if he returns and finds his play improving, the trajectory of past players suggests that he still won't be better than mediocre offensively, and as he continues to age his defensive contributions are sure to continue to erode.  That said, the history of players like Vince Carter stepping their percentages back up to average levels one year after being atrocious might be just enough to give Pierce hope if he's looking for a reason to return.