Though the Boston Celtics have been able to prolong their championship window and remain competitive for longer than expected, two of their core pieces have experienced a gradual decline.
Day by day, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett push back against the unavoidable; their age doesn't bring certain basketball doom, but rather a series of complicating factors. Garnett was able to overcome those factors in last year's playoffs, but we've seen Pierce struggle with them a bit over the last few seasons and ultimately take a step back from his career summit.
But do those slight dips in play change Pierce's status among his NBA contemporaries? Do they make him anything less than a superstar?
The every-other-night star
Pierce's game is still very much intact, but his on-court consistency isn't quite what it used to be. Take Boston's annoying narrative as but one bit of evidence; basketball fans apparently love to argue over whose team these Celtics really are, and within that conversation, Pierce doesn't make all that compelling of a case.
Garnett is the soul of Boston's defense, and Rajon Rondo the engineer of its offense, and somewhere in the middle is Pierce—a player who produces like a star but doesn't seem to really assume control of the team for more than stretches at a time.
Rondo and Garnett aren't infallible in that regard either, and it's telling that last year's Celtics were propelled in separate spurts by each of their star players. Pierce had his moments, but he was only a dominant force for weeks at a time.
There's absolutely no denying the fact that Pierce is a splendid player, even at 34 years old. But were he a legitimate superstar, wouldn't he be just a bit more consistent? Wouldn't he be as steady as he is important?
Was Pierce ever a superstar?
In wondering if Pierce's slight regression denies him status as a superstar, we circumvent a more foundational question: Could Pierce have ever been considered a superstar?
As is typically the case with such matters, the answer leans on definition and interpretation.
Pierce has been very good for a very long time, but it's worth wondering if his complete game had really arrived before his athleticism started to trend downward. Pierce spent a good chunk of his career gunning and figuring out his place in the league, and he didn't play noteworthy defense until Kevin Garnett's arrival in 2008.
He had the skills to be the player that many hoped he might eventually become, but he lacked the disposition.
By the time Pierce finally found that on-court wisdom, he was already midway through his playing prime. He may never have been the best player in the league (or best in the world, as he claimed following the 2008 Finals), but at worst he was sniffing around the top tier of wing players.
Pierce was a certain star finally bordering on something more, but it's up for interpretation if he ever managed to break through.
Pierce has been one of the more successful do-it-all wings in a generation of similar players, but I'm not sure "superstar" was ever a truly appropriate determination. That doesn't take anything away from the kind of player that Pierce is or all that he's accomplished; it's merely an acknowledgement that his basketball enlightenment unfortunately came a bit late. A bit less time freewheeling and a bit more time buying into a team defensive concept would have gone a long way, but 2008 finally brought out the best in Pierce as a player and leader—and left him just a bit short of the superstar pantheon.