Lost in the LeBron James  sweepstakes (well, at least lost on a national level) is that Paul Pierce  has until midnight tomorrow (June 30) to decide whether to decline the option for the final year of his contract and walk away from $21.5 million.
Is he going to do it? Does a 33-year-old forward with about 125,000 miles on his NBA tires really think there is a team out there that is going to throw him, say, $75 million over five years?
“I do have doubts,” said Danny Ainge last week on WEEI when asked if he thought Pierce would return to finish out his contract. “I’m not certain of what Paul may do. I don’t know because he may be able to get a long-term contract somewhere else. It may be better than what we have [to offer].”
Not exactly the hard pitch for Pierce to stick around. There is growing sentiment that Ainge might not be inconsolable should Pierce choose to take his chances in free agency. Paying someone big money for what they have done as opposed to what they will do isn’t exactly Step One in the rebuilding handbook. The idea of keeping Pierce as a career Celtic is great in theory, but in the salary-cap era there simply isn’t a lot of wiggle room for sentimentality.
But back to Pierce himself. Does it make sense to take his bat and ball into the open market? A couple of questions he has to consider:
Does he care about his legacy?
OK, that’s a little extreme. He’s done enough to earn his place, no matter where he plays in 2010-11 and beyond. But Pierce has always been steadfast in his desire to be a member of the Celtics  for his entire career. The truly great players in franchise history– Russell, Cousy, Hondo, Bird, Cowens, McHale — never played a significant NBA second in another uniform. Does that matter to Pierce? Or does he feel that his legacy is secure even he spends four years with the Clippers or (ugh) Knicks?
Does he think the Celtics are still legitimate title contenders?
Could be that Pierce takes a look at the landscape and sees an aging and oft-injured Kevin Garnett , a possibly departing Ray Allen , a retired Rasheed Wallace  and Doc Rivers  getting ready for his TNT closeup. That is glass is half empty to be sure, but not too far from reality. If Pierce doesn’t think there is another title chance left in Boston during his remaining basketball years, why not take the money and go somewhere else? Or it’s possible he could see how who goes where , take a little less dough, and be the No. 2 or 3 guy for a team that needs one more piece? How about 4 years and $48 million to play with Dwayne Wade and Carlos Boozer in Miami?
Is there a team that will give him a long-term deal?
If Pierce is simply looking for the biggest cash out, his best bet might be a team that struck out in the LeBron derby and are trying to placate a bitter fanbase. Could be the Knicks or Clippers, of course. Maybe a reunion with Tom Thibodeau ? I don’t think the idea of Paul Pierce, in the autumn of his career, coming in as de facto savior would be a great lift to the spirits of a jilted hoops community. Pierce’s value around the NBA isn’t close to what it is for the Celtics. And I can’t believe that he’s going to get a maximum contract, particularly in a lousy economy with a collective bargaining agreement looming (and the owners smell blood — they will sit and wait for the players to give in. Nothing close to a middle ground this time. The days of huge contracts will be gone) just a year away. But you can never count out an owner or GM giving in to panic.
Is the smart move to work out an extension with the Celtics?
Makes too much sense not to happen, doesn’t it? Can’t Ainge and Jeff Schwartz (Pierce’s agent) find a number of years and dollars that work for both sides? How about three years and $42 million? Gives the Celtics some cap room over the next few years and Pierce keeps face with a solid extension. Pierce may not be the player he was a couple of years ago, but he’s still be decent value at that contract. And he gets one more payday before what will be a hugely restrictive CBA kicks in.
If I’m Danny that’s my best and final offer. Three years, $42 million. If Pierce doesn’t think that’s enough? You shake hands, wish him well, and get started on the rebuild. Remember, only so much room today for sentimentality.