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Paul Pierce makes list of top 40 NBA players of past 40 seasons

Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce, center, dunks as Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, left, and center Anderson Varejao of Brazil, right, watch during the second half of Game 4 in a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Sunday, May 9, 2010, in Boston. The Celtics won 97-87, tying the series at 2-2. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce, center, dunks as Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, left, and center Anderson Varejao of Brazil, right, watch during the second half of Game 4 in a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Sunday, May 9, 2010, in Boston. The Celtics won 97-87, tying the series at 2-2. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Debating where basketball players rank in the annals of history is a time-honored tradition in the NBA — like Marv Albert yelling “Yes” on a broadcast or the Los Angeles Clippers failing to advance past the second round of the playoffs.

So you can imagine the arguments ignited by The Washington Post’s newly published list of The Top 40 players since the ABA/NBA merger, 40 years ago, as constructed by Tim Bontemps. The Michael Jordan-LeBron James disputes, of course, are inevitable. But so, too, are the “Why isn’t Player X on this list?” and “Who put THAT guy on here?” dissensions.

Although others might debate his inclusion, University of Kansas basketball fans will be glad to know the Jayhawks are represented among The Post’s top 40 of the past 40 seasons, with Paul Pierce coming in at No. 36 — even ahead of a pair of hall of famers, Kevin McHale and Reggie Miller.

A recent retiree and future hall of famer himself, Pierce averaged 19.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.3 steals over the course of 19 seasons, after Boston made him the No. 10 pick in the 1998 draft. “The Truth” was a 10-time all-star, four-time member of one of the three tiers of all-NBA teams and the 2008 NBA Finals MVP.

Bontemps explains his place in NBA history:

“Pierce’s quiet end to his career with the Los Angeles Clippers shouldn’t diminish what was a remarkable run, largely with the Boston Celtics, where he partnered with (Kevin) Garnett and (Ray) Allen to usher in a new era in the sport. He also had the most duels with James, and came out on the winning end more times than just about anyone else, too.”

As referenced by Bontemps, Pierce and LeBron put up some classic battles before the former KU star hit the declining years of his career arc. Pierce and the Celtics knocked James and the Cavaliers (the pre-Miami, pre-Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love incarnation) out of the playoffs in both 2008 and 2010. And although LeBron’s Heat teams would later defeat Pierce and company in three other postseasons (once after Boston traded him to Brooklyn), giving “King James” a 3-2 advantage over Pierce in terms of playoff series won (17-13 in postseason games), this generation’s greatest talent, who has since won three titles, learned much from his early battles with “The Truth.”

"Obviously he gets a Cliff note or a couple notes in my book as far as guys that helped me get over the hump or kept me where I was at the time," James said in 2015 of Pierce. "I knew I had to become much better individually. He's one of those guys."

That praise, along with Pierce’s many accomplishments, some may — you know — argue, should be enough to rank Pierce higher than 36th on this compilation of all-time greats.

Check out The Post’s interactive top-40 graphic and decide for yourself.

Among the 40 players highlighted, Pierce ranks 26th in points, 27th in rebounding, 25th in assists, 24th in steals and 25th in blocks.

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‘I gave every ounce I could’: After 19 seasons, Paul Pierce retires

Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul Pierce, right, shoots as Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors defends during the second half in Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, April 30, 2017, in Los Angeles. The Jazz won 104-91. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul Pierce, right, shoots as Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors defends during the second half in Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, April 30, 2017, in Los Angeles. The Jazz won 104-91. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The career of the best NBA player from Kansas since Wilt Chamberlain officially has come to a close.

After 19 seasons, 1,343 regular-season games, 14 playoff appearances, 10 All-Star games, four All-NBA selections, a championship ring and a Finals MVP trophy, Paul Pierce walked away from the game on Sunday, with the Los Angeles Clippers’ season-ending playoff-loss sending him into retirement.

For the 39-year-old forward, the finale — 6 points, 2-for-4 shooting, 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal in 22 minutes versus Utah — was not reflective of what is bound to become a hall of fame career. “The Truth” as the high-scoring Inglewood, Calif., native came to be known in the NBA during his peak years with the Boston Celtics, averaged 19.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.3 steals for his career. He shot 44.5% from the floor and made 2,143 of his 5,816 3-point attempts (36.8%).

Through an incredible 15-year run with the Celtics, who drafted him 10th overall in 1998, Pierce played in 136 playoff games, producing 20.9 points, 6.4 boards and 4.0 assists a game.

His revered veteran presence took him to Brooklyn, Washington and L.A., too, for the twilight years in the league, before it all finally ended in the first round of the 2017 playoffs, with a Game 7 defeat.

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“You know, it’s tough to come up short in your goals. Each and every year you set a goal to be champions,” Pierce said in a post-game interview with reporters posted at CBSSports.com. “And it’s a tough pill to swallow each and every year. I’ve been in the league 19 years, so I’ve had to swallow 18 tough pills. But at the end of the day, I was happy to be a part of this, compete with these guys and see the work everybody put in every day, and I appreciate the guys around me,” he said, before shaking his head in apparent disbelief. “It’s been a fun ride.”

The season obviously ended sooner than Pierce and his Clippers teammates hoped, but the new retiree was able to put it all in perspective.

“I’m happy at the end of the day with what I’ve been able to accomplish, what I’ve been able to do throughout my career,” Pierce said, “and I gave every ounce I could. Each and every day. I have no regrets. Even to the last day I’m in here a couple hours before the game, you know, giving my blood, sweat and tears to this game.”

Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul Pierce, center, gets a handshake from Alan Anderson, left, and a pat on the back from Wesley Johnson during the closing seconds Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, Sunday, April 30, 2017, in Los Angeles. Pierce is scheduled to retire after the season. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul Pierce, center, gets a handshake from Alan Anderson, left, and a pat on the back from Wesley Johnson during the closing seconds Game 7 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, Sunday, April 30, 2017, in Los Angeles. Pierce is scheduled to retire after the season. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

After Pierce’s final NBA appearance, a number of former teammates and competitors showed their appreciation for his career with messages on social media.

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Likewise, in a video produced by The Players’ Tribune, many of those same stars and contemporaries shared their thoughts on what made Pierce special over the course of his many highlight-filled, shot-making years in The Association. And his college days weren’t overlooked, either, thanks to the help of his coach at Kansas, Roy Williams.

“He was a wonderful player to coach,” Williams said. “He’s a complete player, and I think that competitiveness made him become a compete player.”

His longtime friend and Celtics running mate Kevin Garnett described Pierce both as a “beast” and a “classic” player.

“One of the more clutch, if not calmer, beasts that I’ve met in my life,” Garnett said.

Between the regular season and playoffs since his professional debut in 1999, Pierce logged 47,873 minutes and scored 29,571 points. He retired as the 18th-leading scorer in NBA history (26,397 points).

“This game has meant everything for me,” Pierce said shortly after playing for the last time on Sunday. “And I’m happy from start to finish.”

Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce shouts as he holds the MVP trophy as the Boston Celtics celebrate their 131-92 win over the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA basketball Championship in Boston, Tuesday, June 17, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce shouts as he holds the MVP trophy as the Boston Celtics celebrate their 131-92 win over the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA basketball Championship in Boston, Tuesday, June 17, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

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Paul Pierce, Cole Aldrich join L.A. Clippers to chase a championship

Los Angeles Clipper, head coach Doc Rivers, center, poses team players, from left, Branden Dawson, 22, DeAndre Jordan, 6, Austin Rivers, 25, Josh Smith, 5, Cole Aldrich, 45, Paul Pierce, 34, and Wesley Johnson, 33, far right, at at a news conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. The Clippers managed to keep DeAndre Jordan after he changed his mind about his verbal commitment to Dallas Mavericks. They offered everything he wanted, including a fresh start and a bigger offensive role. When Jordan thought about it a little more, the craziest free-agent recruitment story in recent NBA history ended with him back on the Los Angeles Clippers. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Los Angeles Clipper, head coach Doc Rivers, center, poses team players, from left, Branden Dawson, 22, DeAndre Jordan, 6, Austin Rivers, 25, Josh Smith, 5, Cole Aldrich, 45, Paul Pierce, 34, and Wesley Johnson, 33, far right, at at a news conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. The Clippers managed to keep DeAndre Jordan after he changed his mind about his verbal commitment to Dallas Mavericks. They offered everything he wanted, including a fresh start and a bigger offensive role. When Jordan thought about it a little more, the craziest free-agent recruitment story in recent NBA history ended with him back on the Los Angeles Clippers. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

With 17 NBA seasons, 1,250 regular-season games and 158 playoff contests in his rear-view mirror, veteran Paul Pierce only had one thing in mind when he hit free agency this summer: getting back to the NBA Finals.

Pierce, Boston’s 2008 Finals MVP, reunited with former Celtics coach Doc Rivers and made his first public appearance as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers at a Tuesday press conference in L.A.

“This is probably the last ride of my career,” said Pierce, a first-team All-American at Kansas in 1998. “I think this is where I’m going to end it, so I’m going to go all in. And if we can win a championship here for the Clippers, this will be everything for me.”

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At 37 (Pierce will turn 38 before the season begins), “The Truth” realizes he only has so much basketball left in those legs — even if his new contact is for three years and reportedly $10 million.

“I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said the aging small forward, who opted out of his contract with Washington to head west. “I want another opportunity to win a championship. I thought just being here would be a great fit.”

Pierce was only one of seven Clippers players at the Q & A. While the 10-time all-star and almost-Maverick DeAndre Jordan dominated the press conference, L.A.’s new backup center Cole Aldrich got a little mic time, too.

The former KU big man spent his fourth and fifth seasons with the Knicks, a team that had the Eastern Conference’s worst record (17-65) in 2014-15.

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“You know, going from New York last year, where we struggled, to being on a contending team, it's going to be awesome,” the 6-foot-11 Aldrich said. “You've got a bunch of guys that are going to come in every day and work hard and have fun doing it. And that's the biggest thing is we're a family.”

Joining the Clippers has to feel even more like home for Pierce, and not just because he grew up in nearby Inglewood, California.

“I played with Doc longer than any coach I ever played for in my career,” Pierce said, referencing their nine seasons together in Boston. “Definitely comfortable being around him, being with him. So that really helps out, especially when you go into a new situation, being around things you’re comfortable with.”

Content to play either as a small forward or an undersized stretch-power forward (as he did for the Wizards in the playoffs) with L.A., Pierce anticipates Rivers limiting his minutes throughout the season and even keeping him out of some games in order to keep the team’s elder statesmen feeling a little younger when the postseason comes.

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The NBA’s fifth-leading active scorer (25,899 career points) knows the Clippers don’t need him to be an offensive focal point, considering L.A. has all-stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and Jordan serving as its big three. Pierce simply wants to be a veteran voice in the locker room and do whatever Rivers asks of him.

“I feel I can just be that,” Pierce said. “Kind of like a glue guy.”

That might be just what the Clippers need, after falling apart in the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs, despite a 3-1 lead over Houston (and a sizable second-half lead in a closeout Game 6). Pierce told NBA.com’s Ian Thomsen he watched that collapse closely, because he knew at the time he would either be playing for L.A. or D.C. next season.

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"No way — if I was in that locker room — I would have allowed that to happen,'' Pierce said. "You picture yourself being that voice or being that guy on the court that can help in those situations. I think I fill a pretty big need for them.''

The Clippers have never even reached a conference final, let alone the NBA Finals. But with Paul, Griffin, Jordan, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Lance Stephenson and L.A.’s other role players, Pierce thinks his new team has all the pieces it needs.

"There are five or six teams that can win it all,” Pierce said, “and it boils down to how you come together and whoever is the healthiest.''

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Paul Pierce would fit in nicely with Clippers next season

Washington Wizards forward Paul Pierce (34) reacts in the second half of Game 4 of the second round of the NBA basketball playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks, Monday, May 11, 2015, in Washington. The Hawks won 106-101. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington Wizards forward Paul Pierce (34) reacts in the second half of Game 4 of the second round of the NBA basketball playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks, Monday, May 11, 2015, in Washington. The Hawks won 106-101. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Paul Pierce proved in the 2015 NBA Playoffs he’s still relevant in the league, even with 17 seasons of mileage on his veteran frame.

The 37-year-old small forward from Kansas scored 14.6 points per game and drilled 33 of his 63 3-pointers (52.4%) for Washington in the postseason before Atlanta eliminated the Wizards in the second round, leading Pierce to say his offseason plans would include contemplating retirement.

It turns out those within NBA circles, though, anticipate “The Truth” returning for Year No. 18 — and playing for a different organization.

David Aldridge reported on NBA.com “many around the league” think Pierce will finish his career in Los Angeles, with the Clippers. Though the former Boston star, who also spent one season with Brooklyn, signed a two-year deal with Washington this past summer, he can opt out of the contract and become a free agent again in July if he so chooses.

The Clippers make perfect sense as a potential destination for Pierce. He grew up in nearby Inglewood, California, and won the 2008 NBA championship with current L.A. coach Doc Rivers. Plus, with younger stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin carrying the Clippers, Rivers easily could use Pierce in a reduced role during the regular season — Washington used a similar approach — to save his legs for when they need them the most.

Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce (34) hugs coach Doc Rivers after the Celtics defeated the Detroit Pistons, 89-81, to win the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics advanced to the NBA finals with the victory Friday in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce (34) hugs coach Doc Rivers after the Celtics defeated the Detroit Pistons, 89-81, to win the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics advanced to the NBA finals with the victory Friday in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Then again, if Pierce indeed becomes a free agent, who’s to say he wouldn’t join another franchise? Celtics guard Avery Bradley told 98.5 Sports Hub he would love to see his former Boston teammate back in Celtics green.

“To me, Paul is always going to be a Boston Celtic,” Bradley said. “The things that he’s been able to accomplish in his time here, it was just amazing. And I’m pretty sure all the Boston fans would love that, too.”

Boston, coached by Brad Stevens, surprised the league this past season by reaching the playoffs, despite trading away veterans Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo. The Celtics became one of the more competitive teams in the NBA the final three months of the season and won eight of their final 10 games to grab the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Pierce’s former franchise is trending upward, but the current roster wouldn’t contend for a title, even with the addition of No. 34. Boston would need to make a few more moves and bring in an all-star or two before Pierce could return knowing he had a chance to get back to the NBA Finals.

No road to the championship is easy, but for Pierce, returning to Washington or joining the Clippers would provide paths with fewer obstacles.

The Wizards came close to reaching the East finals this season, and his young teammates John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter all showed serious improvement. It’s easy to envision D.C. taking another step forward in 2016. But if Pierce stays in the East, he’ll have to go through his old rival, LeBron James, to reach The Finals.

The Clippers had Houston on the ropes and blew a huge lead in Game 6 of the second round before their season ended on the road, in Game 7, against the Rockets. Even though the West is loaded, L.A. has the star power of Paul and Griffin, who could propel the franchise to an unprecedented Finals appearance in 2016 — especially if the Clippers re-sign DeAndre Jordan and add some more complimentary pieces.

Ultimately, the lack of a supporting cast led to L.A.’s demise. Griffin and Paul had to carry the load so much, the fatigue caught up with them late in the Houston series. Pierce isn’t the same defender he was earlier in his career, so he wouldn’t be the perfect “3-and-D” wing for the Clippers. But he could lessen the offensive burden placed on the shoulders of Griffin and Paul, particularly late in games.

After so many seasons in Boston green, Pierce has become a bit of a hired gun late in his career. Why not make one last run at a championship with your old coach in your home town?

Paul Pierce's 3-point shot chart from the 2015 NBA Playoffs. (Via NBA.com/Stats)

Paul Pierce's 3-point shot chart from the 2015 NBA Playoffs. (Via NBA.com/Stats)

Truthfully, Pierce would look good in a Clippers uniform. With him camping out behind the 3-point line on one side of the court, and J.J. Redick doing the same on the opposite side, imagine the extra room Paul and Griffin (and Jordan?) would have to operate.

And if defenses decide to focus on L.A.’s stars, Pierce will be there licking his lips, waiting to deliver a crunch-time dagger.

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