An NBA player’s battle against Father Time is unfair; it isn’t a question of if a player will lose, but when. The greats are able to hang on longer than most, with idiosyncrasies, adjustments and an insane work ethic, but each year the league is infused with more youth, more talent and more speed.
It’s a natural process designed to keep the NBA fresh and exciting by replacing older veterans who aren’t capable of performing at the level we’ve grown accustomed to watching over the years.
This season Manu Ginobili and Dwyane Wade are two notable players creeping towards a cliff. Both are first ballot Hall of Famers, and so both have earned a bit more time before harsh criticism comes into play. But it’s clear to those watching that right now they aren’t as dominant as they used to be.
Unlike Wade and Ginobili, Paul Pierce’s per game production is not down, but the way he’s going about his business is changing. Some of it’s concerning, but not all.
Doc Rivers is trying to make Pierce’s life easier, but that shouldn’t be confused with “Pierce isn’t the same player.” His numbers so far this season are nearly identical to those from last year and the year before that. There’s no solid reason to think they’ll fall off if it hasn’t happened already; he’s an above average shooter off the dribble and an elite spot-up threat from behind the three-point line.
According to Synergy, 12.6 percent of Pierce’s plays are in isolation, where 42.4 percent are coming either off screens (21.9 percent) or in transition (20.5 percent)—two methods of making his scoring duties easier.
Last year, 16.3 percent of Pierce’s action came in isolation, where a combined 29.9 percent was off screens (15.7 percent) and transition (14.2 percent).
The Celtics aren’t merely relying on pin-down screens and advantageous transition baskets to get Pierce involved. Doc Rivers is doing a great job of placing him in more regular positions to succeed, isolating him against smaller or slower players. Pierce has obliged by succeeding in these situations by either attacking the basket, bullying his man towards the post or raising up for a barely contested jumper.
No alarms should be going off to indicate Pierce is nearing the end, but that isn’t to say there haven’t been more than a few occasions this season that have made you wonder if he’d do the same thing three or four years ago.
This screen shot was taken earlier this season on Boston’s third offensive possession in a game against the Jazz. Pierce receives a pick from Garnett, catches the ball just above the left elbow, rises up and…passes back to Garnett. As you can see he has more than enough space to get the shot up, but for whatever reason he opted not to.
Here we find the Celtics setting two screens to give Pierce some room from his man, Luol Deng, quite possibly basketball’s best perimeter defender. In years past, Pierce vs. Deng has usually been a show. Great individual offense against great individual defense.
What we get here is disappointing. With plenty of time on the shot clock, as Pierce receives the ball from Rondo just above the three-point line on the left wing, every other green jersey on the court clears out to the right side. This is isolation basketball at its highest form.
Instead, we’re cheated. Without even giving a simple jab step, Pierce settles for a quick three—which he misses—bailing Deng out. This is a little unsettling.
But the increase of pin-down screens to get Pierce open shouldn’t be. They come within the flow of Boston’s offense and are helping Pierce get a quick step on his defender, into the lane or for a wide open shot.
Pierce may be old, but he's still playing at an All-Star level. At 35 years old, he simply can't get into the lane or by his man as easily as he used to. For the rest of his career, expect Pierce to rely on his teammates just a bit more than he'd like (pin-down screens, away screens, give-and-gos, etc.). With a brilliant coach like Doc Rivers by his side, there's no telling when Father Time will finally win the fight, but for the time being, Paul Pierce is still hanging on.
All stats in this article are correct as of Wednesday, November 21