Is Paul Pierce a Top-Five Celtic of All-Time?


There is no denying Paul Pierce’s greatness, but where does he rank among the Celtics greats?

The Boston Celtics are one of the most storied franchises in NBA history. Their 17 championships is the most in the NBA, and one man won 11 of them, Bill Russell. He and Larry Bird are interchangeable when discussing who the greatest Celtic of all-time is. While Bird’s all-around game is one of the best the NBA has ever witnessed, Russell’s dominance on the glass and defensive end, while being the winningest player in NBA history, is hard to ignore.

Following them, John Havlicek and Bob Cousy follow on most people’s list. Although, the luxurious fifth spot to be considered top-five in Celtics history, rather than top-ten, is always up for debate. While someone like Jo Jo White would crack the top-five on many franchises, the Celtics historic list of players isn’t the same as most franchises. Kevin Garnett has been going strong for over 20 years, but does his stint in Boston give him enough leverage to push him into the top-five?

Many believe that it comes down to two players –Kevin McHale and Paul Pierce. One was part of some of the greatest teams in NBA history, widely considered one of the best power forwards in NBA history. The other a current NBA player who helped lead the Celtics back to relevance.

While stats and the eye test are important, it’s not the only thing to consider. When discussing the top-five in a franchise’s history, the impact they made on the franchise beyond the court makes a difference, as well. Paul Pierce meant more to Boston than just the 2008 championship or the 10 All-Star appearances, he brought Boston back to relevance.

There is no denying the greatness of Kevin McHale, though. His 17.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game during his career is even more eye-opening when considering he did it while coming off the bench. His torture chamber is still one of the most recognizable nicknames given to a specific part of a player’s game.

Besides, playing next to Larry Bird and Robert Parish had to take at least a small toll on his numbers. He was never the top option on offense and, despite being a great defensive big man, Parish is usually looked at as the defensive anchor on those teams. McHale was as big of a factor as anyone on some of the most successful teams the NBA has ever seen, but Pierce’s impact on the city and Celtics franchise is something very few players do, or even have the chance to do.

Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports /

The Celtics were coming off a 36-46 record when drafting Pierce 10th overall in 1998. In a lockout shortened rookie season for Pierce, the Celtics went just 19-31 on the year, but to no fault of Pierce’s. He averaged 16.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game as he led the team in win shares. In fact, he led the Celtics in win shares during his first eight seasons, proving his value right off the bat.

For a team that won just 38 percent of their games in Pierce’s first season, it was a long road to go. It was something that McHale never faced as he won the championship in his first season and the Celtics worst season during McHale’s career was a .512 season. While joining a winning team with one of the greatest players ever in Larry Bird wasn’t McHale’s fault, it shows how special of an opportunity Pierce was given, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time – to be the man to bring Boston back to glory.

Sure, Pierce needed the help of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2008 to finally bring back a championship to Boston, but every great player needs help. Bill Russell had Cousy and Havlicek, Bird had McHale and Parish, and Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. The fact of the matter is Pierce did it, he ended a 22-year drought and kept the Celtics relevant throughout the years while they tried to build a championship caliber team.

After winning just 38 percent of games during his rookie season, it took Pierce just three more years before he was finally able to lead the Celtics deep in the playoffs. During his fourth season the Celtics went 49-33, a .598 winning percentage, and they made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.

While Pierce had another 20-point scorer in Antoine Walker, his 26.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.9 steals and one block per game was the main reason for that team’s success. Only three players averaged double-digit points or at least five rebounds per game that season. In fact, it lacked star power outside of Pierce and Walker, highlighting that dynamic duo Boston had for a little bit of time.

The trade of Antoine Walker was devastating for Boston, and shows how fragile that team was. They quickly fell down the standings, only winning the division when he was traded back to Boston at the end of the season in 2004-05.

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When it comes down to it, the Celtics and Paul Pierce went through a lot of downs and very few ups early on. It was a 22-year championship drought for a franchise who once won 10 titles in 11 years. For a consistent member of the All-Star team to struggle because the lack of a supporting cast was hard to see, yet Pierce continued to fight for Boston and tried to win games to bring relevance back to the Boston Celtics.

Winning the championship in 2008, and winning five straight division titles, is not even close to the best run this franchise has seen, however it was one of the most memorable. For the first time in a long time they were at the bottom of the totem pole and had to crawl their way back. It took longer than other times, but the taste of success was arguably that much sweeter.

While McHale is viewed as one of the most dominating all-around power forwards in NBA history, Pierce’s 21.8 points, six rebounds and 1.4 steals per game over 14 seasons with the Celtics is able to matchup with the best of them. He was just four games away from tying Robert Parish for the second most games in franchise history, as well.

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Whether the eye test favors McHale or Pierce is up to you. Although, Pierce’s numbers as a small forward highlight his all-around game and leadership during all the tough times with the Celtics. The numbers are important, but Paul Pierce is a top-five player in the Boston Celtics franchise history for how he led the franchise no matter the situation since his first season. That’s not something you find in very many players, and it can’t be overlooked.