Top 50: Paul Pierce, no. 17
The definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players.
by Adam Fleischer
Growing up, whenever I was at a Celtics game at the TD Banknorth Garden or the Fleet Center or whatever it was corporately named at the given moment, I would rush down to Section 20 with about a minute left. I say down because this was, almost without fail, closer than where I was sitting. Whatever friends I was with and I would get to the section, situated perfectly above the tunnel leading to the locker rooms, and shout out the names of players as they walked by—hoping for some level of returned acknowledgment.
On good days, I’d tell New Jersey Net Brian Scalabrine that I didn’t like him (maybe in different terms than that). On great days, I’d catch a towel or a Rodney Rodgers armband (hope the recovery is progressing, Rodney). The best days, and there were two of these, were reserved for Paul Pierce’s headband.
What I felt after ripping that small green cloth out of the air and away from those around me was pure thrill. I was thrilled that I was holding a sweat drenched game worn headband from an NBA player, from the star of my home team.
See, at that time, somewhere around the ’02-03 season if my memory serves, that’s exactly what Paul Pierce was: the star of the Boston Celtics. He was slowly moving away from being a star on the team—along with Sure, I’ll Shoot This Three aka Antoine Walker—to being the star. Toine’s trade days before the next season solidified the role for Pierce.
With each year, he was putting new things in his game. Upping his free throw attempts. Expanding his range. Adding a now lethal stepback. Increasing his focus on D. Every year, Pierce seems to find a way to get better. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes it’s subtle. In recent times, it’s been on the low.
Last week, Pierce launched “The Truth on Health Campaign” at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. His plan is to encourage kids to eat healthy and stay active. Like he does on the court, number 34 is leading by example off of it. He stated in an interview recently that his off-season was “real productive” and that he’s “coming back in great shape,” adding “I’ve changed my lifestyle to eat better, to be more healthy.” Granted, most dudes would probably say this when talking about their summers, but I bet you can count on him being in peak form when things tip in at month’s end.
He’ll be a year and a half older than he was when he was named Finals MVP. He’ll have logged almost 17,000 more minutes than when he averaged 26, 7 and 4 in that ’02-03 season. But he’ll still be that contact creating and absorbing, big shot hitting guy that he has been year after year. And when it comes down to it, there’s few dudes that you’d prefer on your team than someone who so evidently gives it all for the squad like Pierce.
Paul is probably the only player whose entire career I’ve been able to truly follow firsthand during my lifetime. He’s not now and never has been my favorite, but he’s the one guy whose game I’ve been able to watch on a nightly basis since his rookie year. In a time when free agency, trade demands, and constant retooling is the norm, Pierce remains one of the very few players who has stayed with the same team for the last ten plus years.
The total? Six. Yup, only six guys: Kobe, Tim Duncan, Dirk, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the timeless Jeff Foster. And Pierce.
That’s some serious stuff.
Now, it’s not that this longevity necessarily has some correlation to how good you are. I gave up statistics after high school. And Jeff Foster’s in the group. But it’s a fact definitely worth noting. It shows consistency, reliability, and an investment by the organization in the player and by the player in the organization. It’s no coincidence that two thirds of those players are some of the best of this generation.
The Diesel put it best back in 2001.
“Paul Pierce is the motherf*cking truth. Quote me on that and don’t take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn’t know he could play like this.”
By now, I think we all have a pretty good idea.
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.