Is Pierce a Top-Ten Player?

Paul Pierce calls himself a top-5 or top-10 player in this league. No less an authority than Bill Russell concurs. But is Pierce really in the top 10?

The way I want to answer this question is with a thought experiment by going through a list of teams and asking, if that team's best player were traded for Pierce, ignoring salary cap restrictions, etc., which team would be better off?

It's simplest with an example.

Shaquille O'Neal
Trade Pierce for Shaq and suddenly the Celtics are a contender and Miami is going nowhere. We will therefore say that Shaq is better than Pierce. If we get ten such players, then Pierce is not in the top ten. Let's go on.

Kevin Garnett
The Wolves would be nothing if their big three were Pierce, Latrell Sprewell, and Sam Cassell. They would be on the same order of magnitude a team as the Knicks currently are; not contenders. But KG teamed (finally) with Ricky Davis and Gary Payton, with a legitimate center in Blount and some good passing big men who can also hit the long shot in Raef LaFrentz and Tom Gugliotta... the Celtics would instantly be contenders. Therefore KG is better than Pierce.

Jermaine O'Neal
Pierce and Ron Artest would make a formidable wing combination but without the star big guy in there to grab the boards and make the tough shots, they would be essentially where the Celtics are now. But a C's team of Ricky Davis, Gary Payton, Jermaine O'Neal, and Mark Blount, with e.g. Jiri Welsch in the other wing spot, they may not be favorite for contenders but they are probably one of the strongest teams in the league.

Tim Duncan
An even stronger case for him, similar to the O'Neal one. The Celtics would be instant contenders if they had been able to draft... excuse me, this is a thought experiment. If they were to trade Duncan for Pierce.

Kobe Bryant
Bryant is a better player than Pierce. Even if you call their offensive abilities approximately equal (though I think Bryant is better), Bryant's defense, while potentially overrated, is still better than Pierce's. The Lakers would look a lot worse with a team built around Pierce than around Kobe. The Celtics meanwhile would probably improve a little. But this brings up to our tough calls.

Tough calls:

Yao Ming
This is very tough. Yao on the C's with Payton and Davis and Blount moving to the power forward spot and sometimes backup center... it gives the Celtics tremendous frontcourt depth and makes them strong everywhere but are they really that much better than Houston was last year? Would this team get out of the first round of the playoffs? Meanwhile, Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce would be the league's most offensively potent duo but would they have enough to lift the Rockets? This is a very tough call. As a GM you'd trade Pierce for Yao any day of the week and twice on Sunday simply because the difference between Pierce and e.g. Ricky Davis is high but not tremendous, the difference between Yao and anybody else is, like him, enormous. Yao is a player you build your roster around. Pierce is a player you mold to fit your roster, your system, and your vision.

Tracy McGrady
McGrady and Pierce are very similar players. I don't know which is better though I'd probably lean towards T-Mac. For one thing, he seems to have a better three-point shot. For another, he is better at driving to the hoop. And thirdly, he's younger and more athletic and will sell more seats.

LeBron James
Again an obvious trade for the Celtics but would it also improve the team? James is just so unselfish. There is never a second thought if a teammate is open. He doesn't consider: will the teammate score or am I in a better position to throw up a prayer? Pierce sometimes seems to asks himself that question on drives. James also makes players around him better, and he's a lot younger, a lot more athletic and explosive, and a lot more of a box office draw.

Carmelo Anthony
I have no idea who is better among these two. I would lean heavily towards Pierce. Denver's team would improve immensely while the Celtics would probably languish.

Dirk Nowitzki (close call, probably yes), Kenyon Martin (both teams probably better off), Ron Artest (no thank you), Steve Francis (no thank you), Allen Iverson (close call), Ray Allen (no), Peja Stojakovic (no but close), Andrei Kirilenko (damn that's a close call but probably prefer Pierce), Brad Miller (would not improve C's), Sam Cassell (nope), Steve Francis (nope).


I was expecting to be able to easily rattle off ten-twenty names of players that in an imagined trade would improve the C's. It turns out to be a harder task than I imagined. Can you pick ten of the above names that you think a one-for-one trade, salary cap conditions ignored, would immediately make the C's a better team and the other team worse off? Even adding Dirk, T-Mac, LeBron, and Yao, I only get nine players.

That leaves no worse than the tenth spot for Pierce.

Is he really a top-ten player? I guess so.

The Lesson
Bill Russell is never wrong.