The NBA's offseason will always be defined by contract-seeking superstars. But year after year, impact signings are made shortly after the major dust settles. These are players who aren't capable of altering a franchise's aspirations, but they're good enough to make them more realistic. Add one to a roster that already has oodles of talent, and expect good things to happen.
One prominent name in this bunch is Paul Pierce. The 10-time All-Star turns 37 in October, but still has a lot of quality basketball left to offer. It's easy to look at Pierce's across-the-board-career-low numbers from last season and think he had a bad year, but that assumption lacks context. Compared to his former self it's true, but that's irrelevant to this discussion. Compare Pierce to other available free agent combo forwards, and he's a fantastic get for the right team.
Most players his age deny new-found limitations cast down by Father Time. They furiously paddle upstream instead of flowing with the current. Everyone eventually succumbs (except Tim Duncan), but a special few learn how to adapt. They change positions, embrace new responsibilities and finely tune a once-broad repertoire. This is Pierce.
He's doughy (by NBA standards) and old, but look at all he accomplished last season and try arguing he isn't still good enough to nudge a borderline playoff team into a seven hole (even in the West), or help take a championship contender to the Finals.
Anyone who watched Pierce play in the mid-2000s knew his game would age well. He has a PhD in pace. He no longer coasts to his spots, but still manages to play at a hypnotizing, syrupy speed while all hell breaks loose around him.
Thanks to various injuries throughout Brooklyn's frontline, Pierce spent the majority of last season as a small ball power forward. On offense, he stretches the floor and matches up against tree trunks who can't move on the perimeter. But he's a stout post-defender, always fighting for position well before the entry pass is made, and winning enough ground to give himself a puncher's chance. He's also still one of the best rebounders and his 18.3 defensive rebound rate last year was the second highest of his career.
The patented transition three-point dagger remains a glorious weapon of choice (he sunk it 43.4 percent of the time last year), and some of Brooklyn's most successful half-court action came from an off-ball screen that set Pierce up for an open shot or more direct path to the basket.
And Pierce is still a superhero in the clutch -- the last five minutes of a game where Brooklyn led or trailed by five points or less. In 146 minutes of crunch time last season, he posted an irrational 46.9/55.2/65.7 shooting split.
On Monday, Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix reported that Pierce was looking for a two-year deal in the range of $9-10 million per year. That's a cool number for Pierce's agent, Jeff Schwartz, to throw out on the Internet, but nobody besides Brooklyn would even consider paying it -- except, of course, the perpetually desperate Dan Gilbert. (For comparison: That's what the Memphis Grizzlies just gave Zach Randolph, and is the same per-year dollar amount -- on one less year -- Dirk Nowitzki signed for with the Dallas Mavericks.)
He could always return to the Nets, and the Los Angeles Clippers are a ballyhooed choice. But the only two incentives Pierce has to stay in Brooklyn are money and a loyal connection to Kevin Garnett. The Nets aren't contenders, though, and that alone could be enough to push Pierce out the door.
The Clippers definitely don't have enough cap space and already used the full midlevel exception on Spencer Hawes. The only way they can land Pierce is if he explicitly declares a desire to reunite with Doc Rivers in his hometown, and Billy King agrees to a sign-and-trade.
But better fits are out there: The Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans and Mavericks all work for a variety of reasons, if Pierce is willing to accept about half of what he's reportedly after -- in other words, about half of a full non-taxpayer midlevel exception. (Note: teams that use their non-taxpayer midlevel exception are hard capped at the apron, which is $4 million above the tax line -- approximately $81 million. Also, all salary related numbers are rough estimates, with information provided by ShamSports and Basketball-Reference.)
Here's a closer look at four possibilities.
Not long ago, the Rockets were a scrappy underdog, hunting for CBA loopholes and prying solid but flawed role players like Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik from better teams. Now? They're a greedy Great White shark. James Harden and Dwight Howard lead the charge, but Daryl Morey wants more.
Three months ago, they had as good a shot as any Western Conference team of emerging to battle the Miami Heat for a ring. Instead, their flaws were exposed in a somewhat-shocking first-round series against the Portland Trailblazers.
Those weaknesses still exist, and everyone knows what they are. Perimeter defense is probably the most glaring, but Houston also lacks experience, an overlooked and important variable needed in every champion. Houston lacked it badly last season, and it showed.
What they need is someone to loosen the pressure on both ends of the floor. Few things are more difficult than quantifying how vital having a player on the floor who holds everyone else accountable can be. Someone who six years ago won a Finals MVP, and just three years ago was draining go-ahead game-winning threes against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Enter Pierce. Few, if any, players in the NBA are more respected, and he's still capable of steadying a tipsy boat through choppy waters as one of the NBA's premier communicators on both ends. On defense, he always knows where to be, and where everyone else should be making their rotations. The Nets allowed 7.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with Pierce on the floor last season.
Think that number is augmented by weak competition in the East? Against teams out west, the Nets were still 5.1 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Pierce playing a ton of power forward.
On the Rockets, Pierce would most likely come off the bench, either as a stretch four or primary play-maker during the 7-10 minutes a game when Harden is on the bench (or Chandler Parsons, if he's still on the team).
Pierce can stretch the floor and blow past defenders who close out hard. In last year's playoffs, he shot 80 percent on 4.3 drives per game. That's sort of incredible. He can still create his own shot when called upon to do so, and remains an excellent, tough, intelligent rebounder. All on-court contributions aside, his influence on Houston's youthful roster can't be quantified; it could very well be what nudges this team out of the Western Conference.
Diving deeper into contract specifics, things get a bit complicated here, but, essentially, it's too early to say how much the Rockets could offer Pierce. Right now they're under the cap, which eliminates the full midlevel exception as an option. But if they move Lin and take back no salary, come up short in the Chris Bosh, Carmelo, LeBron sweepstakes, then re-sign Parsons to a $10-12 million deal, they'd still have roughly $8-10 million of cap space to spend. More than enough for Pierce. If Bosh takes Morey's max offer, Pierce is no longer an option.
If the Mavericks strike out on Anthony, are unable to squeeze Parsons from the Rockets and don't want to lock themselves into a long-term deal with Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza or another possibly-overpriced wing, Pierce's three-point shooting alone makes him a fantastic step up from Shawn Marion.
Dallas took on about $5 million in salary by trading for Tyson Chandler, but that still leaves them with a little under $14 million to sign Vince Carter before frolicking in free agency's field of hopeful happiness.
With a solid bench (assuming Carter re-signs), Rick Carlisle behaving like a genius and (presumably) a good chunk of their mid-level exception to sign another free agent, a Devin Harris, Monta Ellis, Pierce, Nowitzi, Chandler starting five is likely good enough to make a title run if everyone stays healthy. Just think about how smart that team would be.
Pierce's high IQ team-defense would also compliment Chandler nicely. It's an old bunch, but Dallas wasn't exactly young in 2011.
New Orleans Pelicans
This team lacks patience and desperately want to win right away. Signing a productive, efficient, someday Hall of Famer like Pierce will help them do it. New Orleans can use their entire mid-level exception on Pierce if they want (a four-year, $23 million deal), but cutting it in half is definitely preferable.
Pierce would serve as a decent upgrade over Al-Farouq Aminu, especially with regards to him spacing the floor on offense. And having his championship toughness and guile rub off on Anthony Davis wouldn't hurt. Adding Pierce isn't enough to compete for a title (even with Omer Asik and a healthy Jrue Holiday), but it'd give this team a puncher's chance at not only making the postseason, but winning a series once they get there. And that seems to be all they want right now.
Memphis isn't getting out of the Western Conference with Tayshaun Prince's septic-tankerous play in its starting lineup. Him and his 8.2 PER are no longer good enough for a team with championship aspirations.
Replacing Prince with Pierce solves an immediate problem (even though he's still on the books with an expiring $7.7 million contract), and gives the Grizzlies a spicy offensive weapon long missing from their jagged attack. But also, on the most simplistic level, doesn't this relationship just feel sort of perfect? A patchy facial-haired Pierce wrapping up his incredible career with the NBA's feistiest band? He already has experience playing with Courtney Lee and Tony Allen, and is more than comfortable cooking in the half-court, which is where the Grizzlies do their business.
Memphis might be the only team here willing to offer Pierce its entire non-taxpayer midlevel exception, only because they've already shown a willingness to give declining players long-term contracts (most notably the four-year, $20 million deal given to a 31-year-old Allen last summer). That isn't ideal, but with Marc Gasol entering free agency next season, this could be the Grizzlies final shot at winning it all. Logic be gone.
Some of the league's very best teams are attempting to pad their riches with another superstar. That's far from a bad strategy, but signing someone like Pierce shouldn't be seen as a squandered opportunity, either. He isn't Carmelo or LeBron, but he understands his role and fits perfectly with a few teams looking to soar higher next season. Pierce is still a relevant player who can make significant plays on a big stage. All he needs to do is take a modest pay cut. Sound familiar?