When I saw a Paul Pierce “The Players’ Tribune” column hit my Twitter timeline on Monday morning, I thought for sure that Pierce was going to be joining Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett in retirement.
I was wrong.
Instead, the soon-to-be 39-year old Pierce announced Monday that he was coming back for one final season with the Los Angeles Clippers, whom he considers to be serious title contenders.
Pierce on why he returned: "My main reason for coming back was this group. … I think this group is talented enough to win a championship."
— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) September 26, 2016
With Kevin Durant leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors, and again, Duncan no longer being with the San Antonio Spurs, Pierce has good reason to feel like his team has enough talent to make a big leap and have a special season. Take into account that both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are entering the final years of their contracts with the Clippers, and it’s abundantly clear that this season is championship or bust for the organization.
The main question moving forward–at least in regards to the aging Pierce–is how big of a role is he capable of playing for a team with such high expectations?
Between having a fully healthy Griffin, and the additions of Raymond Felton, Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass and Alan Anderson, we should expect a relatively new look Clippers rotation outside of the core starters that have been together for three seasons now.
Doc Rivers has already stated that he plans to play Pierce at the power forward more than the small forward spot this season, but even if the Clippers play smaller this season, there are only so many minutes to go around for Pierce.
Also, when it comes to Pierce, who started 38 of the 68 games he appeared in last season, you have to wonder if his production from last season will factor into how he fits into the new rotation. Defensively it makes sense to shift him away from guarding the perimeter, but offensively, Pierce may not have the skill set desired out of a small ball four anymore.
All things considered, Pierce had the least effective season of his 18-year career last year. Granted he clocked a career-low 18.1 minutes per game, but even if you look at his Per-36 stats from last season, Pierce’s 6.1 points per game only translate to 12.2 adjusted points, which would still be a career low. More concerning has to be how poorly he shot the ball, posting career-low percentages from the field (36.3) and from downtown (31.0).
Again, we couldn’t be all that surprised to see Pierce finally show signs of decline, but considering he was still able to shoot 37.3 and 38.9 from deep the two seasons prior with the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards, such a drastic fall-off was incredibly alarming. And what reason is there to believe last season was a fluke?
If anything, Pierce had plenty of opportunities to step up for the Clippers last season but proved repeatedly that he wasn’t capable of shouldering more of a workload. Between Griffin missing 47 games, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith were both phased out of the rotation and eventually sent elsewhere, and a lack of talent that led to the team trading for Jeff Green.
If Pierce was capable of doing more, we should have seen it last season. Instead, Pierce finished the year with the lowest VORP on the team, as well as the worst Box Plus Minus of all rotation players, per Basketball Reference.
Even without Griffin, last season’s Clippers team was one of the most talented teams we’ve seen Pierce play with recently, and it resulted in the least productive season of the future Hall-of-Famer’s career, which could feasibly be replaced by an even worse version of Pierce this season.
Maybe I’m being too harsh here. Maybe this is just Pierce coming back to sit on the back of a bench, stay close to his family while playing in his hometown, collect a paycheck, hang out with his buddy Doc, and hopefully at the end of the season be the old guy at the championship parade. That would be fine; Pierce has certainly done enough in his career to earn him a season of riding coattails.
It just doesn’t feel like that’s why he signed that three-year deal with the Clippers last offseason.
You had to be delusional to think Pierce was going to be the answer to the Clippers’ ongoing small forward problems, but after the seasons he had in Brooklyn and Washington, he was expected to be a meaningful contributor. Pierce always had that “old man game,” where he wasn’t dazzling you with athleticism as much as he was constantly making tough shots, at tough times, out-hustling opponents and never allowing anyone else to want to win more than he did.
As narrative-y as that last line sounds, that’s the role Pierce not only excepted, but was destined for in the later part of his still-effective playing days. Considering he finished last season with a career-high .610 three-point attempt rate, it’s not out of the question that Pierce can bounce back and still contribute by means of knocking down open threes in a high-powered offense. And if there’s any coach that would give him the benefit of the doubt and allow him to play through early struggles, it’s Rivers.
That said, it’s unclear where Pierce fits into this team’s equation, or what lineups he’s expected to be a part of, but he should be in a better place to succeed this year either way. If he sees minutes with the first unit (which still doesn’t have a slam-dunk option at small forward), then obviously, he benefits from being sandwiched in between Paul and Griffin, not to mention J.J. Redick, who led the NBA with an insane 47.5 three-point percentage last season.
And unlike last season with the backup ball-handling duties alternating between Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, and Pablo Prigioni, if Pierce winds up playing more with the second (or even third) unit, he’ll benefit from playing with Felton, a point guard who thrives on dribble penetration and kicking it to the open shooter.
This Clippers’ roster is literally filled with players that are ready to contribute, in plenty of different ways. With championship aspirations, if Pierce plays like he did last season I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees minimal playing time. But just like last season, there’s a whole bunch of opportunity for Pierce to make the most of.
Now the question becomes, was last season the beginning of the end, or does he have one more productive year left in him? Stay tuned.