Paul Pierce, Larry Bird & The Lies Nostalgia Told You

Athletes tell lies. Agents tell damn lies. And sportswriters use statistics.

It’s been three long weeks since Paul Pierce eased on by Larry Bird on the Boston Celtics career scoring list and tucked comfortably behind John Havlicek into second place – a moment that, although hastily swept away in the avalanche that is/was Linsanity, still marks the high point of Boston’s so-far sluggish Atlantic Division title defense.

Midway through his 14th NBA season, Pierce has scored 21,921 points officially, plus another 2,351 in the playoffs. And although Boston coach Doc Rivers and Pierce himself led the chorus of voices attributing too much of Pierce’s feat to longevity and not enough to skill, there’s no reason to throw any asterisks or proverbial wet blankets on what the man has done.

But because it’s 2012 and every sports achievement must be ranked five seconds after it’s been filed, the celebration for Pierce was cut short just so some media types (professional and social) could needlessly remind the world that scoring more points than Bird does not mean Pierce is better than Bird. That in fact, Pierce orbits nowhere near the same planet on which Bird and his legacy reside in basketball lore.

It’s a lie. A damn lie.

Now I won’t sit here and claim Pierce is a better player than Bird was. I don’t believe that. But I do believe that the gap between the two generation-defining Celtics is not as cavernous as many people – writers, TV analysts, fans, ex-players, Bird devotees and Cheers patrons – would have you believe.

I only wish I could use more than statistics to pose a strong argument. For a moment, though, consider this:

In 13 seasons playing with a rotating cast of Hall of Fame teammates – from Dave Cowens and Tiny Archibald in his rookie year to Kevin McHale and Robert Parish during his farewell tour – Bird won three NBA championships (with two Finals MVPs). After he turned 30, Bird never made it back to the Finals.
Pierce has played on teams with multiple future Hall of Famers – Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal and Rajon Rondo (don’t count him out yet) – during just four of his 13 full seasons, not counting this one. In those four years, Pierce won one NBA championship and copped Finals MVP. He was 30 years old then, and led Boston to the Finals at 32.

So in other words, when Pierce has been surrounded by a championship-caliber team – a luxury Bird enjoyed for essentially his entire career – he has proven to be just as successful a winner as Larry Legend. And while I hate to use “if” in situations like this, isn’t it reasonable to believe that if Pierce had played with the likes of KG and Allen for the bulk of his 20s, he’d have a couple more championship rings?

Pierce has career averages of 22.1 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Bird averaged 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists in his day. In his best season (2001-02), Pierce was good for 26.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists, hitting 44 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free-throw line. In his best season (’84-85), Bird was good for 28.7 points, 10.5 boards and 6.6 assists, hitting 52 percent from the field, 42 percent from three and 88 percent from the line.

Stay with me now…

So if we put two small forwards head-to-head in an NBA game, and one of them went for 24-10-6 while the other one posted 22-6-3, would you say that Player A dominated Player B? Of course not. If the matchup ended 28-10-6 to 26-6-3, would you call it a blowout? I doubt it.

But try to suggest any scenario other than Pierce getting completely and utterly eviscerated by Bird head-to-head and see how your audience reacts. Some of your more fervent types will claim that Bird could outplay Pierce right now, with Larry creaking around at 55 and Pierce still playing at an All-Star level.

For his part, Bird recently went on record about Pierce to the Boston Herald: “He’s a great scorer, and he won a championship, so he’s right there with the rest of us, as far as I’m concerned.”

Then there’s Hall of Fame basketball writer Bob Ryan, who called Pierce the greatest scoring machine in Celtics history four years before Pierce passed Bird’s point total. In Sean Sweeney‘s Dime #62 feature on Pierce from 2011, Ryan said, “Havlicek ran without the ball. He wasn’t a one-on-one player. Larry had guys that could guard him and make him take shots that he didn’t want to take and at times, keep him from getting the ball. That was a fact. Pierce, you don’t have any recollections of that. If he wants the ball, he gets the ball. He gets it. You can clear out with him very confidently. He can get at the very least a reasonable shot, at the best, a great shot for him. If he doesn’t, he has a chance to get to the free throw line because that’s his other option, which he is great at. What more do you want?”

This isn’t just about Pierce versus Bird, though. Earlier this week I planted a couple seeds on suggesting Kobe Bryant and LeBron James might outrank Bird on the unofficial list of the NBA’s all-time greatest. The majority of the feedback from readers was what I would’ve expected had I walked into a Bronx barbershop saying Pitbull is a better lyricist than Big Pun. A sampling:

“Lebron has no chance at guarding Bird. One on one, two on two, 5 on 5, or however you want to break it down, Larry would rape LBJ offensively.”

“I just started cracking up thinking about people saying that Kobe is better than Bird nonsense.”

“Larry is way better than what LeBron James will ever be as a basketball player and probably as a human being.”

“It’s not even a (expletive) argument. The fact that anyone who considers themself a basketball writer or fan would think Kobe is in the same gym as Larry Bird is infuriating. Larry Bird? Bird? Kobe ain’t even better than Tim Duncan or Shaq!!!! And you trying to talk LARRY (EXPLETIVE) BIRD!!!???”

What I saw then is the same as what I witnessed earlier this year, when debates surfaced comparing the 1992 Dream Team to the 2012 U.S. Olympic roster:

It’s the towering height of the pedestal on which players from the ’60s and ’70s, and especially the ’80s and ’90s, have been placed. The pedestal is, as my man Jimmy McMillan would say: Too. Damn. High.

Our sports culture has a nostalgia problem. While I’m glad sports hasn’t gone the way of hip-hop and deemed its legends irrelevant upon their 35th birthdays, the reverence shown for the old school over the new constantly moves from respectful to delusional.

Maybe it’s for the same reasons that, no matter when you grew up, the music we listen to as teenagers is the music that resonates with us for the rest of our lives. Or it’s for the same reasons that our first loves are unforgettable.

If you grew up watching Isiah Thomas in your formative years, when everything just meant so much more, it’s going to take a lot for you to ever put Derrick Rose above Zeke on your hierarchy. If you were raised on Clyde Drexler, you don’t want to hear that Dwyane Wade might be a new and improved Glide.

I’m not immune. I grew up in Seattle during the ’80s and ’90s, and I still get offended when anybody starts putting Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the same conversation as Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. We all do it. Some of us have just lost a little touch with reality.

Nostalgia run amok is why too many NBA fans and media talk as if Scottie Pippen could’ve kept The Iron Monger scoreless for 48 minutes; as if Kevin McHale had 4,001 post moves in his arsenal and 163 more that he never found time to use; as if Bill Russell blocked 20,000 shots and never let ANY of them sail out of bounds.

It’s why ridiculous claims are made that Hakeem Olajuwon would’ve dropped 60 on Dwight Howard; and Charles Barkley would’ve left Chris Bosh in a quivering heap; and John Stockton and Karl Malone combined for 36,000 points using nothing but picks and rolls – and that CP3 and Griffin could never execute the same play as perfectly because, well, they’re not Stockton and Malone.

It’s why a talent like Pierce – or Kobe, or LeBron, apparently – cannot enter an argument against a Bird or Magic Johnson and get a fair shake on the scorecards. (And don’t even try poking a hole in the invincibility of Michael Jordan‘s legacy.) It’s like a never-ending road game in hostile territory; like going into the heart of Culiacán hoping to win a decision against Julio Cesar Chavez. It just ain’t gonna happen.

After Pierce reopened the Bird discussion this month, The Republican (Mass.) columnist Ben Larsen wrote:

“The general era in which Pierce has played his career also skews how many fans see him. Not only does he have to compete with Bird, (Bob) Cousy and the other great Celtics, he has had to go against the NBA’s change in demographics. Those who lived through the league’s golden era from the Bird-Johnson, Celtics-Lakers rivalries through Jordan’s heyday aren’t the NBA’s target demographic anymore. Nor will they ever give credit to the way the game has been played for the last 15 years. Those fans, however – like the rest of us – still hold a stake in deciding ‘who’s the greatest.'”

Which brings up the most glossed-over and miscalculated factor of the old-school/new-school divide: Today’s NBA may actually be better than the league of yesteryear.

Think about it: From the time Magic and Bird entered the NBA in 1979 and well into the ’90s, the league’s talent pool was almost solely limited to U.S.-born players.

Power forwards back then were not shooting 40 percent from three-point range and moonlighting as point guards.

Point guards were not scoring 25 points a night and making a habit of dunking on seven-footers.

Twenty-two year-olds were not good enough to win league MVP.

There were no 6-11, 270-pound centers that could do windmill dunks with their head on the opposite side of the backboard – and have enough skill to lead the league in rebounds and blocks a combined five times.

There were no 6-8, 260-pound small forwards blessed with track-star speed and linebacker strength – and skilled enough to consistently average 27 points, seven boards and seven assists per night while being one of the top defenders in the world.

Think about somebody like Rudy Gay. He’s a 6-8, 230-pound small forward who shoots 40 percent beyond the arc, handles the ball like a guard, doesn’t turn the ball over much, and can hurdle a normal man on his way to the rim. How many changes of pants would you have to give an NBA scout in 1987 or 1993 had they seen that kind of player? But in 2012, Rudy Gay can’t even make an All-Star team. He might not be the best player on his team, and his team isn’t all that great.

This is today’s NBA. Coaches have more knowledge, scouting is more advanced, training and nutrition is on another level, injuries are easier to overcome, and players have been playing against their country’s best in their age group, year-round, from the time they are nine and 10 years old. The league, just like society as a whole, is bigger, faster, smarter and stronger.
That isn’t to imply that Bird or Magic or anybody from their era had it easy. Absolutely not. It’s just simple evolution.

Have you ever wondered how the best players from the Golden Era would’ve fared in today’s game?
Paul Pierce is your answer.

His game is throwback, ground-bound, our best example of how practiced skill and basketball IQ and elephant-sized onions combat unprecedented athleticism and advanced scouting. Pierce has scored thousands of points, won hundreds of games, and hit dozens of daggers, operating within his prehistoric body in a P90X league.

For that, he should be recognized as one of the greats of his era.

And then after that, Pierce and his peers should take their rightful places among – if not above – those whom we consider the greatest of all time.

What do you think?

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