The 2004-05 Celtics were a hodgepodge to behold. This was the beginning of Doc Rivers’s tenure in Boston. Kevin Garnett was still straining to believe he could accomplish big things with the Timberwolves, and Ray Allen was exploding on a doomed but fantastically entertaining Sonics squad. Antoine Walker, exiled and finally found out as more of a chucker than a revolution, was brought back into the fold midseason, and unsurprisingly, New England found a way to completely misunderstand a fledgling Tony Allen.
This series endeavors to be more than a facile recollection of familiar faces, but sometimes it is also that. This particular Celtics team consisted almost entirely of Guys: Mark Blount, Raef LaFrentz, Marcus Banks, Walter McCarty, Ricky Davis after Paul Silas could no longer sanction his foolishness, a washed up Gary Payton right before he won a title in Miami, Tom Gugliotta on the brink of retirement. It probably goes without saying that though this collective now scratches a particular nostalgic itch, they were not very good. The East that year consisted of the newly Shaq-fortified Heat, the gracefully aging post-championship Pistons, and a wide gulch of halfway competent teams. The Celtics were in the gulch. They went 45-and-37 and got bounced by the Pacers in the opening round of the playoffs.
This didn’t have to be a discouraging—no matter what the Hinkie-ites say, it’s okay to be okay—but the organization was stuck in a stultifying cycle that had been ongoing since Larry Bird’s back started to give up on him. The last time the Celtics had won 50-plus games was 1992, and the relief that came from no longer being a laughingstock during Rick Pitino’s terrible reign was fading. In a vacuum, the 2004-05 season wasn’t objectionable, but in context, it inspired a lot of anxious questions. Where was this franchise headed? How were they going to get better? And was Paul Pierce the sort of star you could win with, or did he just put up pretty numbers?
Pierce was 27 at the time, seven seasons into his career. He was living an eventful life—surviving a late night stabbing in 2000, nearly forcing a trade to the Blazers in the waning days of their Jail Blazericity in 2002, challenging for a couple of scoring titles despite playing every game in combat boots—but the on-court tension was slack. The Celtics didn’t come close to contending. They were inconsequential, and ultimately, so were Pierce’s achievements.
There’s a line somewhere, inscribed onto the popular consciousness and maybe some metaphysical plane. On one side of it are the stars par excellence—today that’s Giannis, Kawhi, LeBron, Durant; in Pierce’s prime it was Duncan, Kobe, Garnett, Iverson—and then there is everybody else. Pierce hovered in the vicinity of the line without ever making a credible approach. Danny Ainge spoke highly of him in the press, going to so far as to compare his work ethic to Bird’s, but Pierce wasn’t untouchable. Ainge could fathom moving on from him, if the conditions were right.
The summer of 2005 provided those conditions. The New Orleans Hornets had taken Chris Paul fourth overall in the draft and Ainge was a big fan of the Wake Forest point guard. The Hornets asked if he wanted to do a deal for Pierce, and the Celtics seriously considered it. Ainge admitted as much to Bill Simmons in 2013: “we had to go in one direction or the other. It was either go with [Pierce], or go young and start over. There was a discussion. We decided we wanted to win with him here.” Jackie MacMullan has said that the decision was extremely close, telling Zach Lowe last year that around the time of the draft, the Boston Globe had two Celtics season ticket ads ready to go for a particular morning edition: one with a picture of Pierce and the other with Chris Paul.
This wasn’t an indictment of Pierce’s abilities. Every organization that isn’t competing for a title is open for business on everyone over the age of about 23. He wasn’t old, but he wasn’t young anymore, because the Celtics had squandered his youth. The Hornets would’ve been a strange snow globe in which to spend the rest of his 20s. 2005 was the year Katrina struck New Orleans and forced the franchise to relocate to Oklahoma City for two seasons, and from what we know about how the Hornets were run throughout the Chris Paul era, Pierce wouldn’t have had much help in either city. There are worse fates, of course, than becoming Carmelo Anthony of the Bayou, stuffing the stat sheet for six months and then going a little too hard on butter-poached shellfish in the offseason.
But that is not what anyone as competitive as Pierce truly wants. That 2002 trade demand was about getting the opportunity to play meaningful basketball in May and June. The Hornets wouldn’t have fulfilled that desire.
It turns out Pierce only had to hold tight in Boston. The 2007-08 Celtics team that won a title, and went on to vie for several more, came together suddenly. They were not the product of long-term planning so much as serendipity and Danny Ainge’s gift for navigating trade markets that materialize overnight. There were many junctures at which franchise and franchise player could have quit on each other—they even tried to, on a couple occasions—but in keeping the relationship intact, both eventually realized their aspirations. The outcome is always a lot cleaner than the process.
The Celtics were championship-starved, by their lofty standards, but they didn’t need that 2008 triumph to continue being The Boston Celtics. (In short, a museum dedicated to their own glorification.) Pierce, though, is exactly the sort of talent who benefits immensely from having starred on a title-winning squad. The memory needs hooks for players like him, who aren’t quite all-timers. His successful Game 7 duel against a young LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Semis, and the images of him lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy a few weeks later, is just such a hook, a specific moment that describes Pierce’s lower-case greatness more articulately—perhaps more favorably than is fair—than his Basketball Reference page does.
Most athletes of Pierce’s caliber never find this validation, though many of them spend their entire careers seeking it. They are drafted by an incompetent front office, or hit the free agent market in the wrong year, or get traded away from a good team and onto a lousy one. All you can ask, if you’re not one of the handful of players around whom the rest of the league orbits, is that circumstances coincide to give you a chance to prove your worth. Paul Pierce got this, which to say he got lucky. And then he took care of the rest.