"Paul Pierce could end up being the best offensive player this team ever had. And I've seen them all. I mean, he's got an inside game, an outside game, a tweener game - everything."Yeah. Paul certainly has everything...except maybe a "lead my team to the playoffs" game. But I digress. The obvious implication of this statement is that Paul Pierce is, in fact, superior (offensively) to the Basketball Jesus. And Tommy was quick to confirm this implication.
"Oh, Larry Bird was a great player, No one would ever dispute that. But this kid's going to blow by everybody. Even Bird, one-on-one, was not as good as this kid. Sam Jones might have been decent one-on-one. Havlicek was a pretty decent one-on-one player. I just think Paul has a chance to be better than all of them when it comes to offense and the total offensive game."Despite my intimate knowledge of Tommy's creeping insanity, these comments caught me by surprise. Usually, old-timers like Heinsohn go with the throwback player over the young buck. Maybe Tommy was consciously trying to go against convention, mix things up a little, and give a little credit to the new generation. Who knows? But whatever the case, he ruffled Bird's feathers something fierce. So respondeth Larry Legend:
"Are you basing it on the regular season or the playoffs? I mean, it’s hard to compare guys that have never been to the finals to other players. If you gear yourself to play six months of the year, it's completely different than gearing yourself to play nine months a year. My whole focus was trying to gear myself to play nine months a year."
Ouch. It's going to take Paul's eyebrows a while to grow back after that singing. But I don't think it's an entirely fair statement. If you saw Bird play (as I did), read his various books and autobiographies (as I have), and watched Larry Bird: A Basketball Legend (as I do every night before bed), you'd know that he never held anything back. He didn't pace himself because he was playing nine months versus six. That guy went all out every time he set foot on a basketball court. So this hit was a little below the belt, although he was quick to sing Paul's praises.
"Paul's a hell of a player. He's probably having his best year. Paul's the type of guy who can defend. He's very competitive. He can shoot. He rebounds his position, and that's key. He's one of our best in the league. I ain't taking nothing away from him. The thing is, the playoffs are what make you as a player. I mean, you can sit and talk about players all you want, but until you get in the playoffs and play for the big prize year after year. . . ."
Again with the playoffs thing. I agree that the playoffs are what separate the great players from the legends, but you can't hold Paul completely responsible for the Celtics woes. After all, Larry got to make Kevin McHale and Robert Parish better. Pierce gets to make Wally Sczcerbiak and Brian Scalabrine better. Another thing to remember is that Heinsohn never said Pierce was a better all-around player than Bird, just a better offensive player. Although that's kind of misleading too, since Bird's career numbers are either close (24.3 points to 27.1 points) or better than (49.6 percent shooting and 6.3 assists versus 47.8 and 4.7) Pierces career-best numbers.
Keep in mind also, that Bird once averaged 29.9 points a game (and was only four total points away from averaging 30) on 52.7 percent shooting to go along with almost 7 assists. And that was a season when the Celt's starting five averaged almost 100 points a game. So don't think for a second that Bird couldn't have thrown in 30 to 35 a night. He doesn't.
"You know, if I wanted to score 35 points a game - if I knew I was just going to play in the regular season - I would have been very capable of doing that. But it wasn't me. I had more talent around me than Paul's had, and our whole focus was winning championships."
Okay, Larry. We get it. The Celtics aren't going to the playoffs this year. But the basic premise is correct. Bird could have averaged as many points a game as he wanted. He just wasn't that kind of player, and the Celtics weren't that kind of team. Everyone was involved. Everyone contributed. And Bird's supporting cast was much, much more talented than what Pierce has to work with. What people (and Tommy) need to realize is that the greatness isn't about numbers. Bill Russell averaged 15 points a game and shot 44 percent for his career, yet the numbers that count are 11 championships in 13 years.
As good as Pierce has been this year -- and make no mistake, he's been great -- remember this: he's having a career-best season. You have to look at the broad scheme of things and consider his accomplishments within the perspective of his entire career. He may be more athletic than Bird, his drives to the basket and off-balance jumpers may be more aesthetically pleasing than Bird's awkward lunges to the basket and soft step-back shots, but Pierce never ran, and controlled, the offense of a truly great team the way that Bird did.