Who’s Had a Better Career: Paul Pierce or Ray Allen?

By: 06.07.10  •  33 Comments

Paul Pierce covers Dime #5

We argue. You decide.

PAUL PIERCE (by Adam Flomenbaum)
Of course, nicknames don’t define a player, but both Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have nicknames that will live on with them past their playing days. The difference is that Allen’s nickname, “Jesus Shuttlesworth,” is fictional. It was given to him as the lead in Spike Lee‘s He Got Game (a fine performance), and when I hear the nickname I think first of the perks of being a highly-touted college recruit rather than Allen’s deadly shot. Pierce, though, is “The Truth.” Pierce got the nickname when, years ago, Shaquille O’Neal apparently pulled aside a Boston reporter and said, “Take this down: My name is Shaquille O’Neal, and Paul Pierce is the [expletive] truth. Quote me on that, and don’t take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn’t know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is the truth.”

Maybe Shaq said this because Pierce carried the abysmally mediocre Celtics team to the ’02 Eastern Conference Finals. Although they lost the series in six games, Pierce and the Celtics mounted a 21-point comeback in the fourth quarter of Game 2, where Pierce had 19 of his 28 points. It was the largest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA playoff history.

Or maybe Shaq just had the foresight that Pierce would be the leader of a rejuvenated Celtics franchise. Kevin Garnett is more vocal and Ray Allen more flashy, but Pierce leads foremost by example. Simply, he gets the job done on both ends of the floor. He doesn’t have a quick release and he can’t blow by defenders anymore, yet he somehow finds his way to the basket at will. With his signature step-back, he creates more space than the legroom in a Maybach. Many people also forget that during the ’08 NBA championship run, besides countering LeBron‘s 45 points with 41 points of his own in Game 7 of the conference semifinals, Pierce was a lockdown defender when it mattered. He has shown that he could shut down Kobe, LeBron and other elite scorers. It is this aspect of Pierce’s game that separates his career from Allen’s.

If we look at Offensive Win Shares — an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his offensive production — both Allen (18th all-time) and Pierce (48th all-time) are historically good. But if we look at Defensive Win Shares, Allen’s numbers were horrible until he joined the Celtics, while Pierce’s numbers are good for 59th all-time. Also, Pierce’s edge over Allen becomes more clearly defined when we look at their Player Efficiency Ratings. Bearing in mind some flaws in Hollinger’s PER system — which attempts to quantify a player’s contribution both positive and negative — the numbers are pretty indicative of a player’s performance. Pierce’s career PER of 20.8 places him 50th all-time, while Allen’s 19.4 puts him 81st.

From Pierce’s buzzer-beating shot to beat Miami in Game 3 of this year’s first round, to his 31-13-5 stat line in the Eastern Conference Finals clinching Game 6, he is largely responsible for the Celtics being in position win their 18th championship. Allen’s three-point and free-throw shooting numbers alone warrant a ticket into Naismith and we will always remember his smooth stroke, but when looking at the players’ complete body of work, we want nothing but The Truth.

Ray Allen covers Dime #11

RAY ALLEN (by Austin Burton)
Maybe it’s because I was raised on the West Coast — where Ken Griffey Jr. and Steve Largent even suffered the pitfalls of “small market” success — but I’ve always appreciated athletes who star under the radar.

So I followed Ray Allen while he was building the first half of his Hall of Fame career in Milwaukee, well before he moved to Seattle and became the best pure scorer the Sonics ever employed. And yet, I grew to appreciate Ray’s game even more in the years he played for my team.

It would be easy to look at the last three seasons and say Paul Pierce beats Ray head-to-head. Pierce has been Boston’s leading scorer every year of the “Big Three” era. Pierce won the ’08 Finals MVP. Pierce made three All-Star teams in three years versus Allen’s two. Pierce is the go-to guy in crunch time and the team leader.

But it’s not that simple. In the same ’08 Finals where Pierce certified his Hall of Fame status, Ray went for 20.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals, hitting 50% from the field, 52% from three, and 86% at the line. Pierce got MVP, but it’s not like Ray was an innocent bystander.

And for the better part of a decade before that — when Ray was the No. 1 option in Milwaukee and Seattle — his stats were on-par with Pierce’s numbers, and he led his teams just as far in the playoffs. Pre-’08, Pierce and Allen each made four playoff appearances, with one conference finals trip apiece.

In a pinch, I’d still take Pierce over Ray in a clutch situation. But over the course of their careers, I’d say Ray has been (and still is) tougher to guard. Consider this: In 33 regular-season games against the Lakers — essentially his career versus 10-time NBA All-Defensive selection Kobe Bryant — Ray has averaged 20.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists, shooting 43% from the field, 36% from three, and 90% at the line. Yesterday he lit up L.A. for 32 points and eight threes (a Finals record), and while Kobe only guarded Ray occasionally, that wasn’t by accident: Phil Jackson knows Kobe will get worn out trying to chase Ray around. That’s not exactly a concern when assigning a defender to Pierce.

Ray has the accolades to match Pierce, with nine All-Star picks, two All-NBA nods, and one championship. He has similar stats. What sets Ray apart is that he does one thing — shoot the basketball — better than everyone else. Ray could easily be considered the best long-range sniper the game has seen (next season he’ll pass Reggie Miller as the all-time leader in threes), and his 89.4 free-throw percentage ranks 5th all-time. Pound-for-pound, he may be the best pure shooter ever. Paul Pierce is a top-flight scorer, a solid defender and a clutch performer, but does he crack the “best-ever” discussion in any of his specialty areas? Not really. That’s why, at the end of the road, Ray will leave a bigger impression on the game.

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