Two players from two different eras, Dominique Wilkins and Paul Pierce attacked in entirely different ways. Wilkins is known as one of the greatest aerial attackers in NBA history, as really the first player to pull off showtime dunks in tight fourth quarters. Pierce, even at 36 years old, is still going strong mostly because he’s always had an old man game.
Pierce and Wilkins are two of the best small forwards we’ve ever seen, but each lacked a little of what the other had. Wilkins never won anything and never played for a franchise like Boston. Pierce was consistently overlooked and rated behind names like T-Mac, VC, Kobe and Iverson.
‘Nique is long gone, but Pierce’s career is winding down as well and today, we’re debating who was better. Wilkins… or Pierce? We argue. You decide.
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These are two players with a list of accomplishments that cause one’s eyes to scroll through pages and pages of Hall of Fame credentials. They have very different and distinct styles of play but the two legends share one thing in common and that is a lack of respect by most fans (and some media).
“Nique” was an amazing basketball player. A nine-time All-Star, 13th all time in points scored with the 14th highest scoring average ever at 24.8 points per game, he has been wrongly labeled as a “dunker” but he didn’t dunk 12 or so times per game to attain his lofty scoring average. Let’s be absolutely clear, Wilkins was great and often overlooked, especially when it came to other areas of his game, like rebounding.
Pierce, on the other hand, just as it would appear to be in this article, never seems to get top billing. His game largely takes place on the ground while Wilkins often soared over vertically challenged defenders. Pierce looks like the taller version of a dude you might find in your recreational basketball league, while Wilkins’ movements on the court made cameras flash and retinas expand. It’s always been that way for Pierce, seen and only heard because his numbers speak loudly enough for notice. But even if you think Pierce’s game is vanilla, it would be wrong to allow that thinking to seduce you in favor of Wilkins as the better player.
The Captain, as he was affectionately called from his days on the Celtics, is a player still building upon his already impressive resume. Currently ranked 18th all time in points scored, Pierce should finish somewhere in the top 15 (very close to Kevin Garnett and Alex English) when all is said and done. He has hit the 10th most free throws ever, showing a propensity to get to the line and score in a variety of ways.
When comparing the two, Wilkins has a slightly higher field goal percentage (46.1 percent to 44.7 percent) but that can easily be explained by Pierce’s willingness and ability to shoot the three. Pierce is fifth all time in both three-point makes and attempts. It stands to reason that if he is shooting from a further distance more often that his field goal percentage would be lower. Add to that the fact that Pierce’s legs have been failing him in recent years and yet he is still a 37 percent career shooter from downtown, while Wilkins bottoms out at 31.9 percent with far less makes and attempts. That in turn leads to Pierce having a higher true shooting percentage at 56.9 and a higher effective field goal percentage of 49.9, compared to Wilkins at 53.6 and 47.8 percent respectively.
Wilkins has a phenomenal career usage percentage of 30.3 percent but Pierce’s at 27.5 isn’t anything to scoff at. With that in mind, Pierce has been the superior playmaker for his teams, averaging 3.8 assists for his career to just 2.5 for Wilkins. Both players have had to endure rough seasons for their respective franchises but Pierce has been able to get teammates involved consistently whether his teams were lottery bound or otherwise.
Defensively, Wilkins sports a career defensive rating of 108 while Pierce has been significantly better at 102. Even when you take Wilkins’ higher offensive rating of 112 to Pierce’s 109, the differential on both sides of the ball favors the former Kansas standout at plus-7.
What seals the argument in favor of Pierce over Wilkins is probably their performances in the playoffs. Numbers aside it is about results. Wilkins had the displeasure of playing in the Bird-Magic-Jordan era and was never able to vanquish his oppressors when it mattered most. ‘Nique never made out of the second round of the playoffs, despite a stellar seven-game series against Larry Bird in 1988 in which Boston outlasted Atlanta.
Pierce’s direct competition may not hold the same reverence as that of Wilkins, but he defeated his foes and future Hall of Famers multiple times in his playoff exploits. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have fallen and tasted defeat by witnessing Pierce bury elbow jumpers on his way to victory. The Truth simply out-dueled James in an eerily similar Wilkins-Bird-like Game 7 in Boston on the way to Pierce’s only championship in 2008.
One might argue that Pierce’s championship run with the Celtics was the product of the stars aligning as Garnett and Ray Allen are also primary reasons for Banner 17 in Boston. That argument holds water but so does the fact that Pierce stood out amongst those future Hall of Famers as the go-to-guy and clutch performer in the title run. His Finals MVP solidifies his imprint on a historic team as do the awe-inspiring playoff runs he was a part of that fell short in recent Celtics’ history.
Wilkins and Pierce are two titans in basketball folklore, but it is Pierce who wields a more complete and impressive body of work that is still being manicured. A championship and Finals MVP is a huge feather in the cap for Pierce but his playmaking and underrated team defensive accomplishments are icing on the cake. Fans of the Human Highlight Film just have to handle the truth.