Is Paul Pierce a Hall of Famer?
I'll be honest—I may not be the best person to answer this. I’m currently down on Pierce. Thought he was awful for a great majority of the Chicago series (three games shooting below 40 percent, huge missed free throws in Game 1 and Game 4, doing his best David Robinson to John Salmons’ Hakeem in Game 6) and, even worse, looked almost disinterested at times. It was almost a throwback to the lowest moment of Pierce’s career, the “bandaged head” incident vs. the Pacers in 2005. You could very easily make the case that Pierce was the fourth-best player for the Celtics vs. the Bulls (Rondo, Allen, Perkins) and that is not acceptable from a player that considers himself the best player in the world.
Here’s the thing about Pierce, though. He’ll probably score 40 at some point in this series and carry the Celtics to a win, hitting that step-back jumper at will. And I’ll go overboard the other way and call him the third-best Celtic in team history (which I did claim right after Game 4 of the Finals last year. Not my best moment).
So I decided to bring the Keltner List off the bench (with some help from basketball-reference) and try and take a clear look at Pierce the candidate. I can’t promise some emotion won’t factor in, but I will do my level best to keep it muted (something we all wish John Henry had done)…
1. Has he ever been regarded as the best player in basketball? Has anyone ever suggested that he was the best player in basketball?
Well, Tommy Heinsohn probably has. Of course, Tommy has made the same claim about Brett Szabo, so maybe we should take a closer look.
Here are the MVPs for each season Pierce has been in the NBA:
1998-99: Karl Malone
2000-01: Allen Iverson
2001-02: Tim Duncan
2003-04: Kevin Garnett
2004-05: Steve Nash
2006-07: Dirk Nowitzki (more on Pierce vs. Dirk later)
2007-08: Kobe Bryant
2008-09: LeBron James (not official, but it’s a bigger lock than John Mahoney’s character killing himself in the season finale of In Treatment. The six people that watch that show are nodding in agreement.)
At no point in those seasons was it ever suggested that Pierce was better than any of those guys (he has never been a factor in an MVP race). The two best years in Pierce’s career were 2001-02 and 2005-06. Let’s match him up with the winner and see how he does:
2001-02 Pierce: 26.1 PPG, 6.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.0 block, 44.2 FG, Celtics finish 49-33
2001-02 Duncan: 25.5 PPG, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.7 steals. 2.5 blocks, 50.8 FG, Spurs finish 58-24
2005-06 Pierce: 24.7 PPG, 6.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.4 blocks, 47.1 FG, Celtics finish 33-49
2005-06 Nash: 18.8 PPG, 4.2 rebounds, 10.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 51.2 FG, Suns finish 54-28
Not even close, right? I think “no” and “no” and let’s move on.
2. Was (is) he the best player on his team?
Sure. With the exception of 2007-08 there is no question that Pierce has been the best player on the Celtics in every season of his career. (Sorry, Antoine.)
3. Has he ever been the best player in basketball at his position?
For 24 minutes vs. the Lakers last season he was as good as there has ever been. No kidding, I’ll put that effort against any in NBA history. But I know the question really means for a full season or two, and the answer to that is no. Pierce has never had a season to equal Kobe Bryant, another guy I’d put in that “swingman” category.
4. Has he had an impact on a number of NBA Finals or Conference Finals?
I think this might be Pierce’s strongest argument for Springfield.
I’m going to look at his playoff career as a whole here. I count five moments (so far) that I’d put in the “Larry Legend” category (no small praise, as I spent the first 20 years of my life in full Bird worship, complete with an attempted twang and near mullet. If puberty and I hadn’t avoided each other until I was 25 or so you would’ve seen the wispy moustache).
1. 2002- Game 5, First Round vs. Sixers: Drops 46 in the deciding game, including eight threes as the Celtics win by 43. That game is also famous for Greg Dickerson (then the P.A. guy) announcing second-round ticket information WITH THE GAME STILL IN PROGRESS. Eric Snow nearly attacked Dickerson, which, if it had happened, would have been one of the five greatest moments of my life.
2. 2002- Game 3, Eastern Conference Finals vs. Nets: The Comeback, Part I. And, I think, the first time we really thought that Pierce might become an all-timer. If you look at the box score for that game it is amazing how bad that Celtics team was. The Eastern Conference really was brutal at the time. How many games does that team win in 2009? 35?
3. 2008- Game 7, Eastern Conference Semifinal vs. Cavs: Every bit as good as Lebron in this one.
4. 2008- Game 4, NBA Finals vs. Lakers: The Comeback, Part II. You know, when you look at the box score for this one Pierce doesn’t really stand out. But when you watch that second half he is far and away the best player on the floor in a game that meant everything and included three Hall of Famers. He could win another five NBA titles and Game 4 will still be the defining moment of his career and the end of any argument about his place in Celtics history.
5. 2009- Game 5, First Round vs. Chicago: This is the weakest entry, but I’ll allow it. Three big shots to help the Celtics survive in what will be seen 20 years from now as the best series Pierce ever played in.
That’s a pretty solid “Larry Legend Five”. There are active players with better regular season resumes that are nowhere near that. McGrady? Dirk? Jason Kidd? Iverson?
(Oh, and NBA Finals MVPs have a pretty good track record for Hall of Fame induction. Since they started giving it out in 1969, only Jo Jo White, Cedric Maxwell and Dennis Johnson (and more on him later) are the only retired guys not in. Among active players, Chauncey Billups and Tony Parker would be out if they retired today. But Shaq and Duncan are locks and Wade is well on his way.)
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
We are going to find out over the next two or three years. I can the question pretty quickly if it’s about David Ortiz, however.
6. Would he be the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
I’m on record that Dennis Johnson is the best eligible player in any of the four major sports not in the Hall of Fame (the fact that I know nothing about hockey has not slowed me down on this).
Was Dennis Johnson better than Paul Pierce?
You can make a pretty easy case. Both were Finals MVP, but Pierce has never been a First or Second Team All-NBA player. Johnson was a First Teamer in 1980-81 and a Second Team pick in 1979-80. Pierce has zero appearances on the All-Defensive Team, Johnson was a First Team choice six times and made the Second Team three times. Pierce has the one NBA title (so far), Johnson three (but I’ll concede that the edge in the “No Way Does the Team Win the Title Without Him” is just 2-1. The 1986 Celtics would’ve won with Ralph Nader at point guard.)
Pierce is a far better scorer than Johnson ever was (though DJ actually has a better career shooting percentage. Of course the eras were different and Johnson spent the better part of his Celtics career taking wide open jumpers off of double teams on the Big Three) and is pretty much a wash as a passer. Give Pierce an edge in rebounding as well. Really tough players to try and compare, but I do feel that any Hall of Fame with Paul Pierce in it better have Dennis Johnson in there as well.
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
I’ll just go with Win Shares on this one. Pierce has 105.4 after 2008-09, 39th in NBA history. There are plenty of guys in the 100-110 range eligible for the Hall of Fame that aren’t in (Mo Cheeks, Bill Laimbeer, Larry Nance, Jack Sikma, Jeff Hornacek). But you have to figure that Pierce will play another four years or so and get to at least 125. And every player eligible for the Hall of Fame with at least 125 Win Shares is in.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Again, we can assume another four years, right? Allowing that there will be a drop off at some point, I think another 5,000 career points isn’t unreasonable. That would put him at 23,603. And guess what? Every eligible player with at least 23,000 points is in the Hall of Fame. And I think just 5,000 more points is pretty conservative, but I’ll lean toward the conservative side on this one in honor of Jack Kemp (who, sadly, never got to work with Bea Arthur or Marilyn Chambers).
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player is significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
I don’t think so, not really. If I had never seen Pierce play and looked at his stats I would think he was a terrific scorer (better scorer than shooter) and decent passer and rebounder. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?
10. How many MVP-type seasons has he had? Has he ever won an MVP award? If not, how many times has he been close?
There have been 1,238 MVP ballots cast since Pierce entered the NBA in 1998. He has never received a single first, second or third place vote. He has never finished in the top 10 in voting, and his .023 MVP Award Shares rank 129th in history (one spot ahead of Vin Baker and behind guys like Terry Porter, Chris Bosh, Ralph Sampson and Ben Wallace on the all-time list). I understand that a beat writer in Milwaukee may not fully grasp the nuances of Pierce’s game, but his failure to be a significant presence in a single MVP race is frankly a little troubling.
(And this ends any debate about which player from the 1998 draft has had the best NBA career. Dirk has won an MVP Award and finished third twice (also has a seventh and eighth. Also three All-NBA First Teams and three Second Teams. To suggest that Paul Pierce is better than Dirk Nowitzki isn’t Maxwellian in its insanity, but it simply does not add up.)
11. How many All-Star-type seasons has he had? How many All-Star games has he played in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame?
Think Pierce gets into one more All-Star Game? That would be his eighth. There are 35 players in history eligible for the Hall of Fame that have appeared in at least eight All-Star Games. 34 are in the Hall of Fame (Nope for Larry Foust.)
12. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team can win an NBA title?
I’ll put it this way: A team with Pierce as the first option on the offensive end can win a title. We know that much. I don’t think anyone that watched the Celtics last season really believes that Pierce was the best player on the team, however. I have to think the answer to the question is “no”. And that really isn’t a knock. There are a million (deserving) Hall of Famers that were never the best player on a title team.
13. What impact has the player had on basketball history? Has he been responsible for any rule changes? Has he introduced any new equipment? Has he changed the game in any way? Was his college and/or international career especially noteworthy?
No on rule changes or equipment.
Has he changed the game in any way? Not really, no.
He was an All-American at Kansas. Guess that could help if he were borderline, but I doubt it.
So Will He Get In?
I’m surprised. He’s pretty much a lock. The Win Shares, points and All-Star Games all point to a near-certain induction. I figured he was getting close, but he’s done. One or two decent seasons and it’s over.
Do I think a player that has never finished in the top 10 in MVP voting or has never made a First or Second All-NBA Team should be a Hall of Famer (and to be fair, he may very well make one of those teams AND snag a top 10 for 2008-09. Ian Thomsen has him on the First Team in an SI column from a few weeks back, and he’s as good an NBA writer as there is.)? As a rule, probably not. But it isn’t as if Pierce was the 48th best player in the league over the last 10 years. He has pretty much been a top 12-20 player year in and year out. Hard to do for a decade. Throw in the Finals MVP and a bunch of other great big-game efforts and I do think you’ve got a Hall of Famer.
But I still want DJ in first.