NBA Top 50: Paul Pierce (No. 17)
FanHouse's Tom Ziller argues his ranking of the top 50 players in the NBA.
That photo isn't a glimpse into repressed frenzy finally relieved. In a league of smooth, abnormally calmed athletic freaks -- the small forward position being perhaps the most notorious in its coolness on the court -- Paul Pierce stands out as one of the most guttural, primal masters. His game isn't driven entirely by angles and head games. The Truth attacks with a rage and spirit matched only perhaps by a few others (his nutty co-star Kevin Garnett included). Each dribble-drive is more an attack than an attempt, each step-back a hearty slice of himself. The phrase "giving all that you've got" is worn out, but Pierce does leave everything he brings on the court. It sometimes works against him -- he's prone to ill-timed mistakes, he can try to do more than he's able to -- but it has, of course, at the same time made him a very special player.
Pierce has really had two careers, both strong. Before 2004, Pierce was your prototypical superstar swingman: an elite scorer, a decent rebounder, a good defender, a nice ball-handler with a few passes in him. The shooting wasn't efficient, and the rebounds came more in the flow of the game than because of any talent for the boards within. This isn't a bad place to be -- it did get Boston to the conference finals without much else in the cupboard (save gunner extraordinaire Antoine Walker).
In the '04-05 season, Pierce transformed. His game became so much more efficient -- less shots to get the same points, fewer turnovers, renewed emphasis on free throws over fadeaways. As such, Pierce became a better player ... a much better player. The following season, '05-06, Pierce took his shots back but stayed highly efficient. Boston was bad, but Pierce was outstanding, and he likely deserved some low-level MVP consideration.
And while, like everyone, Pierce became a bit subjugated under the Boston troika of '07-08, he has still been able to maintain surprising efficiency -- The Truth is more efficient than Kobe, Wade or LeBron. If Pierce still needed to score 26-27 points a game, there's no doubt he could do it. Would his efficiency dip, or would his defense and rebounding slide with the extra responsibility at this age (he turns 31 next month)? It's possible, but not a given. That's the rub: Pierce could be a superduperstar -- a surefire top 10 MVP finisher, a top scorer, a repeat Player of the Week cat. But his primacy, his instincts allow him to fit like soft clay next to Kevin Garnett, the rock. One of the most unfairly unheralded stories out of Boston last June wasn't the group jigsaw fitting the roster did with the big additions, it was the pure sacrifice of self Pierce and Ray Allen executed. KG didn't do a thing different in Boston. Pierce and Allen did. In The Truth's case, it meant controlling the innate urges we've seen for almost a decade to pound, to fight, to slice, to attack, to score. Lord forbid any injuries to the Celtics, but give us the chance to see full-throttle Pierce one more time in his career. Few players can hold our attention so flawlessly.