Between 1995 and 1998, a half-dozen future Most Valuable Players were drafted into the NBA with backstories as disparate as their personalities. They ran the gamut from high school phenom Kevin Garnett to polished collegian Tim Duncan, and included Philly's Allen Iverson and the Main Line's Kobe Bryant. There was a Canadian (Steve Nash) and a German (Dirk Nowitzki), as well.
Collectively, they won eight MVPs and were key players on a dozen championship teams. They represent the bridge years between epochal stars Michael Jordan and LeBron James, a tempestuous time in the league's history better remembered for the survivors than the rugged style of play.
They are the league's elder statesmen, or what's left of them anyway. Iverson and Nash have retired. Bryant has battled injuries. KG may have another year or two left in him, but he's a far cry from what he once was. Only Duncan and Dirk are still healthy and playing at a high level, and even Nowitzki slipped noticeably this past season.
One player conspicuously absent from that list is Paul Pierce, who never finished higher than seventh in MVP voting. Pierce has always been underappreciated, even in his prime when he averaged 25 points, seven rebounds and four assists while missing only eight games during a six-year stretch. He made 10 All-Star appearances without ever being voted in as a starter and was never a first-team All-NBA player.
He wasn't Kobe, LeBron, Timmy, Dirk or any of the other iconic players we know on a first-name basis. As always, he was the Truth. Simple and timeless.
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It's fitting that as his peers wind down, Pierce has aged wonderfully. His cockiness is now well-earned confidence. His game has evolved from do-everything to do-what's-necessary. Relying on skill, intelligence and textbook footwork that was honed over countless hours in the gym, the old-man game suits him, as does his role as the most honest man in the league. Pierce says what he means and means what he says, and he doesn't back down from any of it. In that, Paul Pierce has become the unlikeliest of folk heroes this postseason.
During a remarkable 15-year career, he's remained largely as he was when he entered the league. His minutes are down and his role has been diminished, but even at age 37, his per-minute statistics have held up incredibly well. He still has that confident chip on his shoulder that he carried with him from Kansas into a league that thought nine other players were better draft prospects.
Still, a belated appreciation is in order. His transition to role player has been so seamless that it takes Pierce's defining talent for granted. Rather than rage against the passing of time, he remained consistently productive even as the league and his supporting cast changed dramatically.
From the beginning, Pierce was never a pretty player. His game was based on skill as much as style, his athleticism masked by a brawny body that was more brute force than cut stone. Despite his gaudy stats, Pierce never cracked the top 10 in MVP voting during those prime seasons from 2000-2006. His Celtics teams were often decent, but never great. They made the playoffs four times in that span, reaching the conference finals once and the second round on one other occasion. Those years would barely be a footnote in their distinguished history if not for Pierce.
"I'm the classic case of a great player on a bad team," he said famously, which would have served as his NBA epitaph if not for the dramatic series of events that unfolded next. Garnett arrived shortly thereafter along with Ray Allen, and Pierce finally had the help he'd been craving for years.
It was then that we came to understand Pierce's genius as a player. Freed from the burden of carrying mediocre teammates, Pierce's game took shape in a remarkable second act. His scoring went down, but his shooting went up. His playmaking, long an underappreciated talent, became the backbone of the Celtics' half-court sets. His defense, which had been maligned, turned into yet another strength.
"When you play on bad defensive teams, you get labeled as a bad defender," Pierce said back then, delivering yet another line that went right to the heart of the matter.
The Celtics were fashioned in Garnett's image. They were selfless on the court with a defensive mindset that carried them well past their expiration date. But they were always Pierce's team. Beloved by younger fans as one of their own, he was finally granted his respect from the notoriously hard-to-please old guard of Boston fans and press. Pierce basked in its warm glow.
His lone top-10 finish in MVP voting came back in the 2008-09 season when Garnett hurt his knee and missed the last third of the season. Only then did Pierce get his due as an all-around player, and he was also named to the All-NBA second team for the one and only time in his career.
Four years later, during what would be the Celtics' last stand, Pierce reached back for one more brush with greatness. Without Rajon Rondo and on a team going nowhere, Pierce averaged 18 points, eight rebounds and seven assists during an 18-game stretch that saw the C's win 14 times. He had seen better days, but few were more inspiring.
We are well into the third and final stage of Pierce's career. The year in Brooklyn now seems more like a bad dream than anything, but perhaps it was a necessary step on his way to a more satisfying conclusion. With the Wizards, he is not asked to be anything more than what he is, which is a perfect fit for his talent and personality.
He had the last shot in Game 3 and he called game. He had it again in Game 4 and came up empty. Neither outcome will change Pierce nor diminish what he's accomplished. He's only adding to his legend at this point, one that's finally being appreciated in its entirety.
SB Nation presents: As the playoffs intensify, so do the fights