Paul Pierce has been talking about retirement lately. It is only natural that a 15-year veteran, entering the final year of his contract with the only team he has ever played for, might be thinking about hanging up his shorts.
Aren't we all supposed to begin planning for retirement from the moment we get our first job? Pierce may simply be planning ahead.
Pierce certainly does not need our advice, but the primary question he will have to ask himself as he ponders retirement is what he wants out of the final years of his career.
Pierce is playing at far too high a level to consider retirement now. He has played himself back into shape and has been arguably the best small forward this side of LeBron James (and at times better) since the All-Star break. If Pierce desires to step away on top as one of the best players in the game, it might make sense for him to play out this contract, which runs through next season, and step away as one of only four Celtics to average more than 20 points per game for their careers. Our final image of Pierce will probably be of him awkwardly muscling past a defender for one of those sneaky dunks that he has perfected in the latter part of his career.
That is not the only type of basketball Pierce has left in him, however. Pierce has spent the bulk of his career as a dominant all-around player. If he so wished, he could spend another three to four years as a not-so-dominant, yet still productive, all-around player. He possesses the rare combination of skills to play a range of positions, and as his teammate Kevin Garnett has shown, it is possible for a player to reinvent himself at another position late in his career.
If carrying the load in multiple areas becomes too taxing, Pierce also could pull back and focus on just one. He could become a spot-up shooter to replace Ray Allen, if Allen does not re-sign. He could turn into a rugged defensive player, sacrificing offense to become a more restrained version of Metta World Peace. He might focus on being a distributor, spelling Rajon Rondo as the point guard grows out of the days when he can play all-out for more than 40 minutes and still survive. Instead of being good at all things, he could be great at one thing.
For Pierce, it will not be a simple play-or-retire scenario. Oscar Robertson, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, to name a few, exceeded the defined boundaries of their positions until late in their careers, when they embraced new roles for title contenders. That is the gift of being a basketball player first, and a certain position second.
Pierce could play. He could retire. He could also change. After 15 years, he can become whatever he wants to be, including a retiree.