One man's attempt to figure out exactly where Paul Pierce ranks among the top 10 players in the history of the Boston Celtics, a list that will inevitably (and probably correctly) be ridiculed ...
11. Bill Sharman
See, it's tricky. I've already cheated. Is Kevin Garnett a better basketball player than Bill Sharman ever was? Sure, probably. Did Sharman ever have a season that matched Garnett's 2007-08? Nope. Comparing eras is impossible, really, all we can do is look at what a player did against the players he faced and see where it stands. And as far as Celtics careers go, I'll take Sharman - four NBA titles, seven times first or second team All-NBA, two top five MVP finishes, seven times among the league's top 10 scorers - over Garnett or Ray Allen.
10. Robert Parish
First, the durability is as good as any in the history of the sport, maybe any sport. We all know he played until he was 75 years old, but he was never hurt. Edit: He played hurt, but never missed games. In 13 years with the Celtics he missed a total of 34 games. Jermaine O'Neal missed 113 games in two seasons with the Celtics. Parish was almost as consistent as he was durable, averaging 18.9 points and 9.5 rebounds at age 27 in 1981 and 14.9 points and 10.6 rebounds at age 37 in 1991. In the decade between, he never played fewer than 74 games in a season or averaged less than 14.3 points or 9.5 rebounds in any season. A freak of nature, you'll never see a career like that again. And when I wrote he played hurt, Games 6 and 7 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Bucks comes to mind. Playing on a severely sprained ankle, he scored 53 points and grabbed 35 rebounds over the two games, logging a total of 80 minutes. Also he once punched Bill Laimbeer in the face, which automatically lands you on this list.
9. Tommy Heinsohn
It's easy to lump in all the guys who won titles with Russell as supporting cast and supporting cast only, but look at a guy like Heinsohn -- in 104 playoff games he averaged 19.8 points and 9.2 rebounds. Nine years, eight titles, six All-Star Games, four second-team All-NBA's and 628 cartons of Marlboro's inhaled. A unique and terrific career.
8. Sam Jones
If I asked 100 NBA fans under the age of 30 to name the two players in history with 10 or more NBA titles how many would get both? All would know Russell, sure, but would 20 of them know that Sam Jones is the other (You did, right? Right? Shame on you.) And this wasn't some guy along for the ride. Jones made five All-Star Teams and averaged at least 20 points per game four times. And he was better in the playoffs, with seven seasons averaging at least 20 points, including 28.6 ppg in 1965. I understand that he retired 40 years ago, but it amazes me that Jones basically doesn't exist when we talk about the all-timers in this city. There are a dozen other major markets where Jones would have statues in front of stadiums if he had the same resume. It just seems wrong on every conceivable level that Kevin Millar is a bigger name in Boston than Sam Jones.
7. Paul Pierce
First, there's no shame in being the seventh-best player in the history of the greatest franchise in professional sports. Two or three years ago it was fair to debate if Pierce was a Hall of Famer, now it's only fair to question if he gets in on the first ballot (I think he should). And, second, if Pierce somehow wins another title he could move up this list (though only a spot or two, the top four aren't going anywhere).
6. Kevin McHale
I’m not convinced that McHale, at his peak, wasn’t the second-best forward in NBA history. OK, Tim Duncan and a bunch of others are ahead in career value (Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Baylor), but when he was healthy and fully motivated (which wasn't always the case, and that would drive Bird nuts at times) McHale was as close to an automatic two points as you're going to get. From 1984-90 he averaged 19.8, 21.3, 26.1, 22.6, 22.5 and 20.9 points while never shooting less than 54.6 percent from the field (and he led the league in 87 and 88, shooting 60.4 percent both seasons). He was a better scorer than Pierce - didn't do it for as long, but was better - won three times as many titles, was a better defensive player (six times first or second All-Defense, none for Pierce) and was a first-team All-NBA player when the league was at its absolute peak.
1986-87 All-NBA First Team
F: Larry Bird
F: Kevin McHale
C: Hakeem Olajuwon
G: Magic Johnson
G: Michael Jordan
Four of the top dozen players in history and McHale.
There hasn’t been a post player even close to McHale since he retired in 1993. He had three go-to moves – the jump hook, the up-and-under and the little fadeaway, which Johnny Most referred to as a “pumpkin” - and about 300 other variations on the core three. Kareem, Hakeem and McHale are, for my money, the three best post players in history. And nobody has tried to emulate the skyhook or the fadeaway. Not sure why that is, but I'm very tempted to blame ESPN and their 25-year love affair with the slam dunk. Think Dwight Howard or Blake Griffin could use a go-to post move?
5. Dave Cowens
Two titles, a league MVP and four straight top-four MVP finishes. How can I put Pierce ahead of Cowens? Pierce has played 14 seasons and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting once -- seventh in 2009. From 1972-76 Cowens finished first, fourth, second, and third in MVP voting and won two titles for teams that averaged 60 wins a season. In those two title seasons Cowens averaged 19 points and 15.7 rebounds and 19 points and 16 rebounds per game. I'm a peak value guy, give me four great seasons over a dozen really good ones. If Pierce wins another title - and another finals MVP - I'll probably move him ahead of McHale and Cowens. But right now I just don't see it.
4. Bob Cousy
Three guards in NBA history have been named All-NBA first team ten or more times. One is Bob Cousy and the other two are Michael Jordan and Jerry West.
3. John Havlicek
Very similar to Pierce, historically, both stayed in the same city forever, stayed healthy and put up huge career numbers. There's a reason why they are No. 1 and No. 2 on the franchise scoring list. It's almost as if Havlicek was a successful spin-off series off of the Russell years, he was the only guy to win titles with and without Russell and was an All-NBA player in both eras. A career 22-7-5 guy in 172 playoff games, and averaged 47.2 minutes, 25.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 18 playoff games in 1969.
2. Larry Bird
There is some momentum in Boston a regarding the idea that Pierce might be the best offensive player in Celtics history, it's been kicked around for a couple of years and gained steam when Pierce passed Bird on the scoring list earlier this year. It seems that this is the title that all have agreed will be bestowed on Pierce when he retires, and at first glance it's a fine fit.
And I'm on board with the idea that Pierce can find the most ways to score in Celtics history - drive to the basket, post up and come off screens to hit a jumper with equal skill - but Larry Bird is the best offensive player in team history by a huge margin. Pierce's career high in field-goal percentage is .497, a number topped by Bird five times in his career (Bird's career FG percentage is .496) Bird's career free-throw percentage is higher than any season Pierce has ever had, and his career 3-point percentage is higher than Pierce's. Oh, and Bird is one of the two or three best passers who have ever lived.
1. Bill Russell
I wrote this a couple of years ago and it's worth updating: The Red Sox, Bruins and Patriots have been in existence for a combined total of 252 years and have won 16 championships. Bill Russell won four less titles but, to be fair, did so in 239 fewer seasons.