Pierce demanded one of two things happen before the 2007-08 season begin. Either Ainge actively went out and brought in players closer to Pierce’s caliber, or actively seek to trade him out of Boston.
Since that summer, the Celtics have not lost in the postseason’s opening round. Up until this season, they hadn’t finished out of pole position in the Atlantic Division.
Now, down two games to nil against the New York Knicks, the Celtics are looking like they might put an end to another five-year streak. Which begs the question: what will happen this offseason?
This will be a very critical offseason for a team that is in an incredibly fragile state. This past season hinged very heavily on a few guys in their mid- to late-30s, another coming off a missed year for heart surgery and a mercurial point guard who tore his ACL mid-season.
One of the only reasons the Celtics were able to make the postseason at all, besides the dismal state of the Eastern Conference, was the play of Paul Pierce. His 18.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game made him a fringe All-NBA third-teamer.
Completing his 15th year, however, Pierce’s train has to be pulling into the station. The same goes for Kevin Garnett, who will be 37 next month.
Earlier in April, Pierce told Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald that he would most most likely want to leave with Garnett.
“I could see us both going out together,” Pierce said recently. “I just couldn’t see myself playing without him. I just see what it’s like when he’s not out there, and it’s a whole different feel. It doesn’t feel right.”
That decision could be made sooner than you may think. Pierce’s $15.3 million is not fully guaranteed for next season, which would be the final year of his contract. Garnett on the other hand, stands to make $12.4 million guaranteed in 2013-14.
Obviously one has to look for incentive for the Celtics to move Pierce. Should Garnett retire after the playoffs, and Pierce follows him step-by-step to Springfield, there is nothing the Celtics can do. That would obviously clear off a ton of cash for them to play with over the summer, but yield no definite return.
Depending where you place a couple players position-wise, the argument can still be made that Pierce is the third best small forward in the playoffs, behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James. That has to be a desirable player, even with the warning signs of age.
A Pierce trade is something that has been discussed to great extent in recent years, by Ainge and numerous GMs around the league.
Even at the 2013 trade deadline, Ainge was hocking Pierce like homemade jewelry on a boardwalk. There was a deal in place to send him to the Dallas Mavericks and net the Celtics Josh Smith, but it died at the last minute.
The Brooklyn Nets came forth with what must have been some kind of joke offer built around Kris Humphries. Pierce was also involved in the Memphis Grizzlies rumors when the Rudy Gay suitors were out in force.
According to Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons, the Golden State Warriors were also a target of Ainge’s solicitation of the Celtics star. This deal would have netted Boston impressive rookie Harrison Barnes, before the Warriors changed their mind.
The Los Angeles Clippers are another team that could get involved with adding Pierce to their shopping cart. The Clippers are a fringe-elite team in the Western Conference who could use a more consistent scorer on the wing. Pierce would provide just that, and the Clippers have the young assets to entice Ainge.
Los Angeles would also move Pierce back to his hometown, which could make the situation easier to stomach for a guy who has played 15 years in the same place.
The public opinion of Ainge over the past five years has fluctuated as often as the New England weather. Depending on when you poll the Celtics die-hards, Ainge is either being ruthless with shopping his players, or too soft in keeping a decomposing core around for another run.
In recent years, Ainge has been all bark and no bite. For all his posturing and shopping of his best assets, he has been incredibly soft in pulling the trigger and getting deals done.
Five years ago, it took Pierce’s ultimatum to force his hand in the Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett trades. Now, once again it may have to be a player who marionettes Ainge into making a move.
If Ainge had his way, this would be year six of the Big Three era in Boston. He tried to keep Ray Allen in town, but it was Allen who forced his way out. It may be up to Garnett and Pierce, whether they want out, because there is little proof that Ainge has the gall to finish any of these rumors.
The easiest thing for Ainge to do is just leave it up to the player. You could hardly blame him for leaving it be and allowing Pierce to finish out his contract and retire next year with Garnett. Given how much Pierce means to the franchise and the city of Boston, this is still a very attractive option.
Above all else, that would give them another shot at a postseason run with a healthy Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and Jeff Green flanking the veteran stars. Something they haven’t really had the opportunity to try yet.
The case for this continues with how consistent Pierce has been in the face of wild fluctuation from his teammates. Are the Celtics comfortable adding more unproven talent to the inconsistencies of Green, Bradley, Jason Terry and others? Pierce’s play covers for those varying individual efforts, in a way.
We saw first-hand this postseason how important he is to the team’s balance. Green posted 26 points on 8-of-15 shooting in Game 1, but then disappeared with a 3-of-11, 10-point performance in Game 2. Terry pulled the opposite, and was held scoreless in the opener, only to bust off three treys in the first half of Game 2.
Pierce has been a steady influence in the first two games of the series, posting a consistent 19.5 points, 6.5 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game. So, Pierce is hardly struggling to get his numbers, even though his team is down 2-0.
Then again, this is a team that wasn’t able to reach 80 points in back-to-back playoff games.
If that doesn’t change in this first-round series, nobody deserves to be exempt from the green chopping block this offseason.