The NBA’s 30 best go-to players (#3: Paul Pierce)

By: 10.26.09  •  50 Comments

Paul Pierce

Who do you want your offense to run through with everything on the line? Counting down 30th to 1st (one per team), I’ve ranked the League’s go-to guys…

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#3: PAUL PIERCE, Boston Celtics

Between thanking God, his mama, and all of Chi-town and South Cack, Kevin Garnett made sure to remind the world that the 2008 NBA championship meant he was “certified.” For Paul Pierce, that certification should have been two-fold, as he copped both a championship and a Finals MVP that night.

And yet somehow, at least in some circles, it went the other way. After Pierce revealed his belief later that summer that he was the best player in the world, the focus shifted toward poking holes in why he isn’t that great instead of highlighting why he is. The ‘chip began to work against him; critics decided Pierce was something of a one-year wonder, that he couldn’t win unless he had two Hall of Famers on his side — ignoring the more accurate fact that those two Hall of Famers won because Pierce was on their side.

Pierce isn’t brand-new to this go-to guy thing. Six years before this new Big Three formed, Pierce was leading the Celtics to the conference finals, putting up 26 points a night at 24 years old while carrying a roster that had Eric Williams and end-of-the-road Kenny Anderson in the starting five. Through thick and thin, he’s going on a solid decade as The Man for his team, a title only a couple of players can actively lay claim to, and that experience is on full display when Boston needs it most. The ’08 Finals was not Pierce’s breakout, it was his coronation.

But that was a whole championship ago, right? Yes, Pierce stared down Kobe and LeBron and beat them at their game back then, but why rank him so high today?

Before getting into the scoring, there is Pierce the playmaker. Last season he averaged 6.2 assists per 48 minutes of “clutch time,” and even with Rajon Rondo‘s recent breakout, has basically been the Celtics’ point guard in tight situations throughout his run.

As a scorer, last season Pierce ranked ninth in the League in clutch time scoring, where he shot 45% from the field and 46% from three-point range (second highest among the Top 15 clutch scorers). But whether it’s one-man scoring runs in the fourth quarter, turning close games into blowouts, sparking comebacks by himself, hitting game-winners or icing wins with free throws, Pierce’s clutch ability isn’t fully reflected in the numbers.

For the same reasons LeBron sits one spot lower, Pierce has an advantage because of the trust factor, even if it is owing a lot to simple perception and preference. I trust him taking a three-pointer with everything on the line; I trust him catching the ball with his back to the basket; I trust his strength driving to the basket and finishing in traffic; I trust he’ll make the right decision to pass or shoot. When Pierce takes that one-dribble pull-up jumper in the fourth quarter, I don’t wonder if it’s goes in; I know it’s going in and I’m surprised when it doesn’t. When he steps to the free throw line with five seconds left and Boston up three, I don’t plan on him missing; and if you’re the opposing coach, you start drawing up whatever play you have for being down by five with five seconds left.

Ask those coaches. No matter how good Rondo gets, no matter how large Garnett’s presence may be, no matter how many open shots it means for Ray Allen, if you’re defending the Celtics at a time when they need to score, your first priority is Pierce. And if he doesn’t deliver, it feels more like his mistake than your accomplishment.

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4. LeBron James
5. Tim Duncan
6. Dirk Nowitzki
7. Brandon Roy
8. Carmelo Anthony
9. Chris Paul
10. Deron Williams
11. Vince Carter
12. Joe Johnson
13. Danny Granger
14. Steve Nash
15. Kevin Durant
16. Gilbert Arenas
17. Derrick Rose
18. Chris Bosh
19. Andre Iguodala
20. Tracy McGrady
21. Baron Davis
22. Michael Redd
23. Devin Harris
24. Kevin Martin
25. Al Jefferson
26. O.J. Mayo
27. Stephen Jackson
28. Nate Robinson
29. Boris Diaw
30. Rip Hamilton

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