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Where does Paul Pierce rank among Celtics greats?

02.06.12 at 9:06 am ET
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On the verge of surpassing Larry Bird for second on the Celtics career scoring list, Paul Pierce only further cements his status as one of the storied franchise’€™s all-time greats — his No. 34 already reserved in the rafters.

How far Pierce climbs that ladder remains to be seen. Even when he surpasses Larry Legend’€™s 21,791 career total with 10 more points, it’€™s hard to argue Pierce soars past Bird, but where does he rank if he retired today?

‘€œIt’€™s nothing I ever really think about,’€ said Pierce. ‘€œI never go into the season trying to break records. They’€™re going to happen if they happen. Just to be mentioned among the great Celtics of the past is just an honor.’€

As soon as seven years ago — in the aftermath of Pierce’€™s infamous jersey-swinging, head-wrapping ejection from Game 6 of a playoff series — this thought seemed utterly insane: The Truth is one of the top five C’s in history.

Still don’€™t believe it? Just examine the resumes of the best quintet ever to call the Garden home.

TOP FIVE CELTICS IN HISTORY
(top-10 team ranks in parentheses)

1. BILL RUSSELL

  • Celtics career: 13 seasons; 963 games (5th); 40,726 minutes (2nd)
  • Celtics stats: 14,522 points (8th); 21,620 rebounds (1st); 4,100 assists (4th)
  • C’€™s averages: 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists
  • Percentages: 44.0 FG%, 56.1 FT%
  • Credentials: 11 NBA titles; 5 MVP trophies (11 top-5 finishes); 12 All-Star Games (1963 MVP); 11 All-NBA selections (3 First Team); 5 rebounding titles (13 top-5 finishes)

2. LARRY BIRD

  • Celtics career: 13 seasons; 897 games (8th); 34,443 minutes (5th)
  • Celtics stats: 21,791 points (2nd); 8,974 rebounds (4th); 5,695 assists (3rd)
  • C’€™s averages: 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals
  • Percentages: 49.6 FG%, 37.6 3P%, 88.6 FT%
  • Credentials: 3 NBA titles (2 Finals MVP); 3 MVP trophies (9 top-5 finishes); 1979-80 Rookie of the Year; 12 All-Star Games (1982 MVP); 10 All-NBA selections (9 First Team); 3 All-Defensive nods

3. JOHN HAVLICEK

  • Celtics career: 16 seasons; 1,270 games (1st); 46,471 minutes (1st)
  • Celtics stats: 26,395 points (1st); 8,007 rebounds (5th); 6,114 assists (2nd)
  • C’€™s averages: 20.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists
  • Percentages: 43.9 FG%, 81.5 FT%
  • Credentials: 8 NBA titles (1974 Finals MVP); 0 MVP trophies (2 top-5 finishes); 13 All-Star Games; 11 All-NBA selections (4 First Team); 8 All-Defensive selections (5 First Team)

4. PAUL PIERCE

  • Celtics career: 14 seasons; 984 games (3rd); 36,380 minutes (3rd)
  • Celtics stats: 21,782 points (3rd); 5,957 rebounds (7th); 3,771 assists (5th)
  • C’€™s averages: 22.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.5 steals
  • Percentages: 44.8 FG%, 37.0 3P%, 80.6 FT%
  • Credentials: 1 NBA title (2008 Finals MVP); 0 MVP trophies; 9 All-Star Games; 4 All-NBA selections

5. BOB COUSY

  • Celtics career: 13 seasons; 917 games (6th); 30,131 minutes (6th)
  • Celtics stats: 16,955 points (6th); 4,781 rebounds; 6,945 assists (1st)
  • C’€™s averages: 18.5 points, 7.6 assists, 5.2 rebounds
  • Percentages: 37.5 FG%, 80.3 FT%
  • Credentials: 6 NBA titles; 1 MVP trophy (4 top-5 finishes); 13 All-Star Games (1954 & 1957 MVP); 12 All-NBA selections (10 First Team); 8 assist titles (13 top-5 finishes); innovated the point guard position

THE CASE FOR PAUL PIERCE AS THE FOURTH-GREATEST PLAYER IN CELTICS HISTORY

This fact alone warrants top-five consideration: An argument can be made that Pierce is the greatest scorer in Celtics history. Just ask Tommy Heinsohn, who once said, “Havlicek might be a better player because of his defense, or Bird because of his passing, but Paul Pierce is the best scorer the Celtics have ever had.”

While Pierce still needs more than 4,000 points to surpass Havlicek — who played more games than anyone in franchise history — The Truth ranks second behind Bird in points per game while maintaining a higher true shooting percentage than Larry Legend. Believe it or not, Pierce has already made almost 1,000 more career 3-pointers than Bird and gotten to the free throw line more than anybody in team history.

And Pierce isn’t just a scorer. Only five players rank among the top 10 Celtics in career points, rebounds and assists. Pierce is one of them (Russell, Bird, Havlicek and Dave Cowens are the others). In terms of advanced statistics, three players rank among the top five Celtics in both player efficiency rating and win shares: Bird, Pierce and Robert Parish, who was never better than the third best player on his own Celtics team.

While the franchise owns 17 NBA titles, only four Celtics have been the best player on a championship team: Russell (11 times), Bird (thrice), Havlicek (twice) and Pierce (once). As his Usage Rate (27.8%) suggests, Pierce was forced to assume a greater offensive load than any of the other three. Prior to the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Pierce played nine seasons without anyone close to a Hall of Famer. Russell and Havlicek each played with 11 separate HOFers, and Bird played with seven. Still, Pierce reached Game 6 of the 2002 Eastern Conference finals with a starting lineup of Antoine Walker, Kenny Anderson, Tony Battie and Eric Williams.

There are those who would argue Pierce’s scoring numbers benefited from the absence of talented teammates, but look at how much more efficient he’s become since Garnett and Allen’s arrival. He averaged 23.7 points on 17.7 field goals per game from 1998-2007 — and 19.3 points on only 13.4 shots per contest since. In fact, the case could be made Pierce would rank higher than fourth on this list had he played with KG and Allen earlier.

HOW FAR CAN PAUL PIERCE CLIMB ON THE LIST OF GREATEST CELTICS?

Where does Pierce’s Celtics career go from here? A report circulated earlier this season that teams have expressed interest in trading for Pierce, and team president Danny Ainge confirmed he would be unafraid to trade Pierce (or anyone else for that matter) if the right deal came around. For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume Pierce finishes his career in Boston (the most likely scenario anyhow).

Pierce is 34 years old and has two years remaining on his existing contract. Prior to this year, he claimed he wanted to last longer than Allen, who he expects to play five more seasons. If that’s the case, The Truth could surpass Havlicek as the team’s all-time leading scorer, eclipse Russell for fourth on the team’s assist list and approach Hondo for fifth among Celtics rebounders. Another NBA championship wouldn’t hurt, either.

‘€œI don’€™t really worry about records,’€ said Pierce. ‘€œThe chips are going to fall where they may. I’€™ve been fortunate to be a Celtic for all these years, so I’€™ve been put in the position to do these things. Barring my health, with a little bit of luck and a little bit of skill, I’€™ve been able to get to these places.”

Still, even if he becomes the C’s highest scorer, Pierce probably wouldn’t approach Havlicek for third on this list, considering Hondo still owns seven more rings. The current captain might just have to settle for being the fourth-greatest Celtics player in franchise history, and who would have been crazy enough to say that five years ago?

HONORABLE MENTIONS: These are the next five greatest Celtics in history (alphabetical order). Notice Pierce didn’t play with any other members of the top 10. Everybody else on this list played with at least two others.

DAVE COWENS

  • Celtics career: 10 seasons; 726 games; 28,551 minutes (8th)
  • Celtics stats: 13,192 points (9th); 10,170 rebounds (3rd); 2,828 assists (9th)
  • C’€™s averages: 18.2 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists
  • Percentages: 46.0 FG%, 78.3 FT%
  • Credentials: 2 NBA titles; 1 MVP trophy (4 top-5 finishes); 7 All-Star Games; 3 All-NBA selections; 3 All-Defensive selections (1 First Team)

TOMMY HEINSOHN

  • Celtics career: 9 seasons; 654 games; 12,194 minutes
  • Celtics stats: 12,194 points; 5,749 rebounds (9th); 1,318 assists
  • C’€™s averages: 18.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists
  • Percentages: 40.5 FG%, 79.0 FT%
  • Credentials: 8 NBA titles; 0 MVP trophies; 1956-57 Rookie of the Year; 6 All-Star Games; 4 All-NBA nods

SAM JONES

  • Celtics career: 12 seasons; 871 games (10th); 24,285 minutes (10th)
  • Celtics stats: 15,411 points (7th); 4,305 rebounds; 2,209 assists
  • C’€™s averages: 17.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists
  • Percentages: 45.6 FG%, 80.3 FT%
  • Credentials: 10 NBA titles; 0 MVP trophies (2 top-5 finishes); 5 All-Star Games; 3 All-NBA selections

KEVIN MCHALE

  • Celtics career: 13 seasons; 971 games (4th); 30,118 minutes (7th)
  • Celtics stats: 17,335 points (5th); 7,122 rebounds (6th); 1,670 assists
  • C’€™s averages: 17.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.7 blocks
  • Percentages: 55.4 FG%, 79.8 FT%
  • Credentials: 3 NBA titles; 0 MVP trophies (1 top-5 finish); 2 Sixth Man of the Year awards; 7 All-Star Games; 1 All-NBA selection (First Team); 6 All-Defensive selections (3 First Team); 2 FG% titles (3 top-5 finishes)

ROBERT PARISH

  • Celtics career: 14 seasons; 1,106 games (2nd); 34,977 minutes (4th)
  • Celtics stats: 18,245 points (4th); 11,051 rebounds (2nd); 1,679 assists
  • C’€™s averages: 16.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 blocks
  • Percentages: 53.7 FG%, 72.1 FT%
  • Credentials: 3 NBA titles; 0 MVP trophies (1 top-5 finish); 9 NBA All-Star Games; 2 All-NBA selections
Read More: Bill Russell, Boston Celtics, John Havlicek, Larry Bird
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