Paul Pierce’s move to power forward adds twist to his career, Brooklyn Nets’ season

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BOSTON – On Paul Pierce’s first defensive possession as the Brooklyn Nets’ full-time starting power forward, Serge Ibaka backed him down on the block. Pierce bodied Ibaka, keeping him out of the paint, and Ibaka threw the ball away.

On the Oklahoma City Thunder’s next possession, Ibaka posted up Pierce again. Pierce hardly yielded an inch as Ibaka settled for a turnaround jumper. Airball.

“He’s always telling us how he can lock everybody up that tries to post him up,” Nets center Mason Plumlee said with a laugh. “He’s done that, pretty much.”

Pierce – the NBA’s shortest and maybe most surprising – starting power forward certainly doesn’t lack the confidence to excel in his new position.

Nor the ability defend post-ups.

He’s held opponents to 35.3 percent shooting and forced a turnover on 25.9 percent of post-up plays finished against him, according to MySynergySports. Overall, he’s allowed .64 points per post-up – 16th best in the entire NBA.

A small forward his entire career, Pierce was always crafty and strong enough to handle players his size. But his ability to routinely defend the post-ups of bigger players, often through sheer physicality, has been impressive.

In every other way, though, Pierce hardly looks the part of a power forward – beginning with his 6-foot-7 frame, shortest among the NBA’s 30 starters at the position. Even in era of small ball, Pierce at power forward adds a little wonkiness on both sides of the court.

But wonkiness seems to be exactly what Pierce, who’s reinventing himself at age 36, and the Nets need.

Brooklyn started the season 10-21, but once Brook Lopez suffered a season-ending foot injury, Jason Kidd turned to small ball and turned his team’s fortunes. Since the change, conveniently timed with the flip of the calendar from 2013 to 2014, the Nets have gone 20-9.

Of teams’ most-used lineups, the Nets’ – Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett – has been the NBA’s second best with a net rating +15.9 (offensive rating: 103.9/defensive rating: 88.1).

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But Brooklyn’s most-used lineup has played fewer minutes (122 all season) than any other team’s most-used, so sample-size caveats apply.

Still, with with Garnett out injured and Plumlee replacing him as a starter, that lineup has been even better (116.8/86.1/+30.7). Though in just 59 minutes sample-size issues are even more relevant, it seems as long as the Nets go small, they can’t help but stumble into a productive lineup.

For Pierce, whose career appeared to be wilting just a few months ago, the results have been nearly as dramatic.

The slippage began to show during the Celtics’ first-round loss to the Knicks last season. In that series, Pierce posted negative win shares, shooting 37 percent from the field and 27 percent on 3s and turning the ball over more than five times per game.

His first couple months with Brooklyn didn’t go much better, as he posted a PER of 13.6 in 2013. That would have been first below-average PER of Pierce’s career. At 36 and on an expiring contract, he appeared nearing retirement.

By moving to power forward, though, Pierce has increased his season PER to 16.1. That would still be a career low, but it’s solidly above average and ranks fifth on a playoff team.

Careers have been extended – or ended – on less.

Despite all his progress as a quirky small-ball four, the position carries dangers. Whenever Brooklyn’s center gets pulled away from the basket, to defend a pick-and-roll or otherwise, Pierce is often left as the last line of defense near the basket.

In the third quarter of Pierce’s re-return to Boston on Friday, Celtics center-of-the-moment Kris Humphries drove past Plumlee on the perimeter. Pierce slide over and took a charge – and a Humphries elbow deep into his right shoulder.

Pierce immediately went to the bench and sat, grabbing his shoulder and wincing.

Even when Pierce succeeds as a backline defender – a difficult assignment for him – he exposes an area of his body that has bothered him for years.

“Whenever I get hit in that shoulder, just I guess the constant years of banging – especially now that I’m playing the four,” Pierce said.

But Pierce – unlike his partner in crime, Garnett, who openly hates shifting to center – seems to be in no hurry to change the small-ball lineups that feature him at power forward.

“That’s our style. It’s no secret. We’re a small team,” Pierce said. “We don’t rebound well. We force turnovers. We shoot 3s.”

Pierce certainly does his part to contribute to those trends.

  • His total-rebounding percentage (10.0) ranks in the bottom five of starting power forwards. Only Shane Battier, Wesley Johnson, Josh McRoberts and Thaddeus Young are lower.
  • Pierce’s steal rate (2.0) is his highest since 2004-05. He excels at jumping in front of passes to power forwards whom other bigs typically couldn’t get around quickly enough.
  • Pierce has taken 39.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, easily a career high. Because he’s tangling for defensive rebounds more and isn’t as exactly as quick as he once was, Pierce, shooting 35.2 percent from beyond the arc, is one of NBA’s more dangerous trailers.

Can Pierce keep this up? Has becoming a power forward saved his career?

“It’s not about being a four,” Kidd said. “He’s a basketball player. So, he’s out there taking advantage of maybe a bigger guy. But his basketball IQ is extremely high, so he knows how to play no matter what position he’s in.”

All Cedric Maxwell got for winning NBA Finals MVP was this janky watch (video)

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Just two NBA Finals MVPs who are eligible for the Basketball Hall of Fame haven’t been selected for induction:

  • Cedric Maxwell (1981 Celtics)
  • Chauncey Billups (2004 Pistons)

Andre Iguodala (2015 Warriors) could join them, but he at least has some Hall of Fame chatter surrounding him. Billups is absolutely a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate, even if not enshrined.

Maxwell, on the other hand, wasn’t on that level. He never even made an All-Star team. He was just a good player who had an excellent six games against the Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals.

Really, it’s a neat distinction to be the lone NBA Finals MVP who was never a star. Maxwell can cherish that.

And this watch, which he reveals in this entertaining video.

NBPA reaching out to players, getting feedback on return scenarios

Michele Roberts
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been in information gathering mode since the day he was forced to shut the league down. He’s gathered information from medical experts on how a return would work, talked to owners and GMs about the financial end and what they hope to see, and had conferences with the league’s broadcast partners.

Most of all, Silver wanted to know what the players thought. With the NBA closing in on a return strategy — Friday Silver and team owners will have a conference call that could lead to a decisive plan — players’ union executive director Michele Roberts is taking the return plans to the players for feedback, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It looks like the NBA will return to play in Orlando, with training camps starting in late June and games in mid-July.

The questions to be answered are:

• Do all 30 teams report to Orlando to play a handful of regular season games, getting teams over the 70 game threshold?
• Do just the top 16 teams report with the league jumping straight to the playoffs?
• If the league does go straight to the playoffs, how will that impact player pay, which is tied to the regular season?
• Will there be a play-in tournament for the final playoff seeds?
Should the NBA do a 1-16 seed playoff format, or keep the traditional Eastern/Western conference format?
• Will each playoff round have seven games, or will the first round (or two) be best-of-five?

Everything option is still on the table (as officials will be quick to say). However, the buzz around the league has grown louder that just the top 16 teams will go to Florida, and there will be seven-game series for every round, as the league tries to squelch any asterisk talk.

We may know a lot more on Friday. And the players will have their say.

Michael Jordan on tape saying he wouldn’t play on Dream Team with Isiah Thomas

Pistons guard Isiah Thomas and Bulls guard Michael Jordan
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In “The Last Dance,” Michael Jordan was asked to react to Isiah Thomas’ explanation of the Pistons’ infamous walk-off. Jordan replied immediately:

I know it’s all bulls—. Whatever he says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then. He’s had time enough to think about it. Or the reaction of the public, that’s kind of changed his perspective of it. You can show me anything you want. There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a—hole.

Maybe there was some projection in that answer.

For years, Jordan has denied any involvement in Thomas not making the Dream Team. Rod Thorn, who was on the selection committee for the 1992 Olympics, has backed Jordan’s version of events.

But Jordan once revealed a different story.

Jordan on Jack McCallum’s “The Dream Team Tapes:”

Rod Thorn called me. I said, “Rod, I won’t play if Isiah Thomas is on the team.” He assured me. He said, “You know what? Chuck doesn’t want Isiah. So, Isiah is not going to be part of the team.”

Yes, the Pistons were being poor sports when they left the floor without shaking the Bulls’ hands in the 1991 playoffs. But that neither began nor ended the story.

The Bulls repeatedly disrespected the Pistons while finally overcoming Detroit. That particularly bothered the Pistons, because, on their way up, they paid deference to to the Celtics and Lakers. So, while the walk-off was – even according to Thomas – regrettable, it happened for a reason.

Jordan carrying his vendetta to the Dream Team only escalated matters. Yet, unlike the Pistons for not shaking hands, Jordan receives minimal scorn for his poor sportsmanship. Threatening not to play if a rival player is also included is the antithesis of what people want the Olympics to stand for.

And Jordan is now on published audio admitting that’s exactly what he did. You can listen to him for yourself.

As the best player and marketing giant, Jordan had the power. Thomas felt the consequences.

In 1992, Thomas was a marginal choice for the Dream Team. He wasn’t clearly better than the players who made it on current ability. He wasn’t as great as the players – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird – who made it on career accomplishments. It would’ve been fine to select Thomas. It would have been fine to omit him.

But it’s a shame he never got proper consideration on merit.

It’s also a shame Dream Team coach Chuck Daly, who coached Thomas in Detroit, is no longer alive to give his account. Did Dally really tell Thorn not to put Thomas on the Olympic team? Did Thorn really tell that to Jordan? Jordan and Thorn are just so untrustworthy on this matter.

Kendrick Perkins: LeBron James-Paul Pierce rift stems from Pierce spitting at Cavaliers bench

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In 2004, Celtics forward Paul Pierce got fined for spitting at the Cavaliers bench during a preseason game.

Why did Pierce do that?

Apparently, LeBron James.

Kendrick Perkins, via ESPN:

When LeBron was coming into the league, he was getting a lot of heat from players. “Oh he’s not going to do that to us. The Chosen One. Wait til he play against grown men.”

So, Paul is talking noise to the bench, right? He’s talking big noise to the Cavs bench. And they’re sitting over there. Bron and them, they’re all sitting over there.

Paul actually spits over there at the bench, right? The ultimate disrespect, OK?

It ended up turning up. After the game, both teams were meeting in the back. Guys was ready to fight. We had to hold people back. It went up from there.

Ever since that moment, LeBron James and Paul Pierce hate each other. They don’t speak to each other.

This was entering LeBron’s second season, not his rookie year. But Pierce was still the established star, LeBron the riser trying to prove himself. As we’ve seen since, Pierce is very protective of his place in the game.

The feud deepened over the years as Pierce’s Celtics battled LeBron’s Cavaliers and Heat in the playoffs. Pierce took other shots at LeBron, even indirectly. Most recently, Pierce named a top-five list that didn’t include LeBron.

But spitting? That’s low.

There’s just something about Boston players from that era.