There are some guys you just want. Not because they're the prettiest, or the easiest to deal with, or even the most statistically reliable. You want them because, when the wind blows and the dark clouds roll in, they're the guys who walk to the end of the high board, raise a middle finger to the cosmos and take the plunge.
Paul Pierce is one of those guys.
During the years that I was the regular NBA beat man for SI, I'd ask coaches and general managers to name a guy they'd like to have, excepting the usual suspects of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and LeBron James. They would ponder the question and offer a surprising answer, "Pierce." No doubt the Boston captain had antagonized them with his operatic chest pounding and his I'm-a-Celtic-and-you're-not attitude. But Pierce had also likely inserted an end-of-the-game dagger into each of their hearts.
"He's as good as anybody in clutch situations," says Suns coach Alvin Gentry, "but for whatever reason nobody talks about him in the same vein as Kobe and Dwyane Wade and those guys. I tell you this—I do not want to see Paul Pierce with the ball and the game on the line."
I've heard something like that from sources as diverse as Larry Bird, who played a rarefied version of Paul Ball (earthbound, reckless, gutsy, clutch), and Mike D'Antoni, who preaches a shoot-it-quick attack that contrasts with the deliberate, probing half-court style with which Pierce is most comfortable.
It is sometimes true, though, that you are most loved away from home, and Boston president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has occasionally tried to trade his captain—the most recent attempts being to New Jersey and Portland in March. But any player due to receive $32 million over the next two years, as Pierce is, will invariably come up in trade conversations. Well, almost any player. The truth is, the Truth is one of those "not-quite" superstars, and that has only increased his desirability index around the league—he seems obtainable.
But it's more than likely that Pierce will end his career where it started in the strike-shortened 1998--99 season. Trader Dan will not give up the franchise's second alltime leading scorer (ahead of Bird, behind John Havlicek) without beaucoup returns, and Pierce for his part has said that he doesn't want to be one of those guys who changes teams to chase wins. He has always embraced the pressure that comes with playing in the shadow of those 17 green-and-white championship banners. That's another thing people around the league admire about him, especially since it's not always gone smoothly for Pierce in Beantown. He endured the Rick Pitino and Jim O'Brien eras, five seasons without a postseason and the frustration of performing as Antoine Walker's sidekick; in four of the five seasons they played together, Pierce watched as Never Timid 'Toine hoisted up more shots than he did, including Walker's astonishing 600-plus three-point attempts in both 2001 and '02.
It's a different atmosphere in Boston now, and Pierce has two other guys with clutch reps at his side. But while Kevin Garnett has a clearer path to the Hall of Fame and Ray Allen is arguably the purest shooter in NBA history, Pierce is still the Alpha Dog when the clock is winding down. "The contrast among those guys is what makes the Celtics so effective," says D'Antoni, who resigned as Knicks coach in March. "Allen is a catch-and-shoot in-rhythm guy while Garnett scores off pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. But Pierce is the one who really kills you with isos. You never know what he's going to do."
You do know what he's not going to do. While he might slay you with a jump shot or a junk shot, it probably won't be a dunk shot. He's not a high-wire act, nor does he get runaway-freight-train end-to-ends like LeBron. His career highlight reel has been shot at ground level, which is another reason to admire him. The most commonly conjured-up Pierce moments are the pull-up three-pointer and the deadly dagger from the elbow, but I prefer to cite those unpredictable isolations when he jukes and jitterbugs with the ball, the aftermath sometimes resembling the scene at a minor traffic accident, bodies strewn here and there, a what-the-hell-just-happened? look on the faces of the bystanders. True, he has a step-back and the deadly fallaway, but so much of his repertoire of junk—stutter, hesitation, lean-in—is designed to draw contact, and over his career he has shot an average of 7.4 free throws per game, which compares favorably to the leaders (James, Wade and Bryant) in that department. Coaches love players who get to the line.
Yes, Pierce is a volume shooter—the polite way of saying that from time to time he hoists up too many—but as much as any forward in the league (besides James), he can move to the point and be a true distributor. He passes; he plays eyeball-to-eyeball defense (he's particularly adept at blocking his own man's shot, as he did when he rejected Atlanta's Joe Johnson in a key moment of the Celtics' Game 6 first-round victory); he plays hurt (he is currently playing through a sprained MCL in his left knee); he wants the ball.