There probably aren't many people in Brooklyn, including Paul Pierce, thinking past the postseason just yet. The borough is focused on the upcoming playoffs, where the Nets have a chance to take down some of the East's established powers.
Regardless of the Nets' playoff fortunes, however, the summer of 2014 is around the corner and with it the typically chaotic NBA offseason. Pierce's contract will expire after this year, and it is unknown how aggressively the Nets will pursue the veteran forward. For starters, Billy King, the team's general manager, has conveyed his interest in bringing Pierce back:
There are a variety of elements to consider, though. Let's break them down into three categories.
In general, this Nets offseason won't be as exciting as last year's. The team has up to $90 million already guaranteed next season to current roster members, assuming Andrei Kirilenko and Andray Blatche exercise their player options for 2014-15. Many think Kirilenko will stay out of allegiance to his fellow countryman and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Blatche might stay simply to spite his former team, the Washington Wizards, who are on the books for most of his remaining contract.
That leaves just Pierce and Shaun Livingston as current Nets who will become noteworthy free agents at season's end. Who is the higher priority? Not Pierce, actually. Despite low expectations, Livingston has become an integral member of the team on both ends of the floor, and King recently called him the focal point of the Nets' summer.
"He’s priority No. 1," King said, per ESPN.com, "He’s been pretty successful for us, and helped us win games."
The Nets' problem is that they don't own Livingston's Bird rights, which means that they can only offer him at most $10 million over a three-year deal. Given Livingston's excellent play this season, it's likely that teams with some cap room will offer him a more lucrative contract. At that point, Livingston will have to choose between staying with the team that fostered his resurgence or taking the payday for another franchise.
The Livingston verdict will affect negotiations with Pierce. If the Nets retain Livingston, they might see Pierce as more expendable and take the opportunity to avoid paying even more luxury taxes on a potential contract. If Livingston leaves, Brooklyn could feel more obligated to bring back Pierce out of the fear of losing a duo of two-way veteran starters in one summer.
Pierce's Remaining Talent
Beyond the consideration of other players' destinations, the Nets' decision on Pierce will come down to how much the 36-year-old is still worth. Brooklyn owns Pierce's Bird rights, meaning they can offer him up to a maximum contract despite already being over the salary cap. Pierce, of course, won't rake in superstar money, but it's not difficult to demonstrate that he is still a valuable asset.
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After his declining skills came under scrutiny during the Nets' poor start this season, Pierce has proven that he can still be as effective, if not as prolific, on the offensive end of the court. Since January 1, widely seen as the turning point in Brooklyn's season, Pierce is shooting 47.9 percent from the floor and 40.3 percent from beyond the arc. Both figures are well above Pierce's career averages and would be solid marks for any player in the NBA, no matter his age.
He also saves his best performances for Brooklyn's most important games. He poured in 29 points in Brooklyn's one-point win at the Miami Heat on March 12, and he's shown a knack for knocking down late threes in close contests over the past few weeks.
Then there are the immeasurables. Some wondered if Pierce would treat his relocation to Brooklyn with apathy or discontent, but he has emerged as a passionate and dedicated member of the Nets. He accepted a switch to power forward under Jason Kidd's tinkered starting lineup, he called the team out after a poor performance in February, and he's often one of Brooklyn's most visibly motivated players. He may have had immense pride in Celtic green, but he's also developed some in his new black-and-white uniform:
Brooklyn will be in "win now" mode for the next couple of years since they have three starters—Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez—on the books for more than $60 million a year through the 2015-16 season. This outlook makes it more likely that the Nets will pursue Pierce since the Truth will be much more useful on a team that has talent around him and is headed for the playoffs. If the Nets were rebuilding, they wouldn't even consider re-signing him.
The contract that Pierce signs this summer will most likely be his last. He will be nearing 40 by the time it expires, and the 10-time All-Star and 2008 Finals MVP doesn't have much left to prove in this league. Pierce is a proud player, though, and he won't settle for a bargain-bin deal as a bookend to his Hall of Fame career. He has access to the same statistics as the Nets do and can make a sound argument in defense of his remaining ability.
He knows he can't command the $15 million he made this season, the last year of a $61 million contract he signed with the Celtics in 2010. But he's also going to demand far more than the veteran minimum of approximately $1.5 million per year required for players with his tenure.
It's possible that he signs for less than his perceived value in an act of selfless commitment to the Nets' championship blueprints. Then again, other teams will be seeking the experienced Pierce—he already stated that he'd be willing to return to his beloved Celtics—which could force the Nets into a mini bidding war.
Whether his longtime friend and teammate Kevin Garnett, whose recent injuries have conjured rumors of an imminent retirement, is still on the team will also affect Pierce's decision.
The final variable to account for is how far the Nets go in this year's postseason. If the Nets get knocked out in the first round, Pierce may give up on the dream of a second ring in Brooklyn and search for a new team, or at least inflate his asking price.
If the Nets make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals but fall short, Pierce may have hope for next season and seek a fair agreement with the Brooklyn front office.
And, if by some small miracle the Nets win the 2014 NBA Finals, Pierce might just hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy, bid his farewell to the Nets and every other team, and ride off into the sunset of retirement as a two-time champ.
The Nets should seek to include Pierce with Williams, Johnson and Lopez to create a four-player core through 2016. He clearly can still contribute on offense, and veteran leaders with his postseason experience are hard to find. Brooklyn should re-sign Pierce to a two-year, $13 million contract over the summer.