All right, put down that bottle of butane. The end of Paul Pierce's time with the Celtics is no more imminent now than it was at last season's trade deadline, when team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge reportedly was close to trading Pierce to the New Jersey Nets. Pierce may plan to test free agency sometime in the next two summers, but worrying about the 10-time All-Star finishing his career elsewhere is premature.
Celtics fans might have been jolted by Pierce's comments in a story published Saturday in which he discussed his plans to test free agency rather than sign an extension in Boston.
"I want to see what it feels like to be a free agent for once in my life," Pierce told The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn. "I think I am going to play this one out."
As one of the more accessible sports stars in this city, Pierce has an interesting relationship with the media. He is typically cooperative with reporters and occasionally will engage the media members he is more familiar with in quick jokes during practice or as he ducks out of the locker room to avoid them before the game. He seldom pulls up a chair and leads any fireside chats, but in a sport filled with multimillionaires, Pierce may be as close to a "regular guy" as an NBA star can be. He gets fired up about going to Red Lobster, just like the rest of us.
As a result, Pierce says a lot of things. At various times over the past few years, he has contemplated retirement, floated the possibility of spending the final years of his career playing overseas and made clear he is aware that he could be traded any time. All of this confirms merely that he has independent thoughts, which is another quality that makes him somewhat unique.
The free agency angle, just like a lot of Pierce's musings, should only be construed as one of several options Pierce could have in the near future. That is why Pierce's comment about free agency, such as it was, appeared in the final paragraph of the Globe story. Pierce's remarks might indicate a number of things or nothing at all.
As a refresher, free agency can come in either 2013 or 2014 for Pierce, and the timing is mostly out of his control. The Celtics hold a team option of more than $15 million for Pierce after this season. Should the team pick up his option, Pierce would be back for a 16th season in Boston and would not be eligible for free agency until the summer of 2014. Should the team decline the option by June 30, 2013, Pierce becomes a free agent immediately and the Celtics only need to pay the $5 million guaranteed portion of his contract.
Even if the Celtics decline Pierce's option, it does not mean his days in Boston are over. Pierce will be 35 years old at the end of this season, and the Celtics may determine that $15 million is a hefty price for a player that age. The team could decline his option and try to negotiate a new, cheaper deal to create payroll flexibility while allowing Pierce to finish his career with the Celtics.
In other words, Pierce's desire to "play this one out" is not code for "skip town." It could simply mean taking advantage of an opportunity to rework some fine print. For another thing, it could also mean retirement. Pierce more readily acknowledges that age will one day rob him of his physical capabilities, a reality that Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have been less willing to admit. Retiring at the end of his contract, rather than announcing his retirement early, would afford Pierce the ability to make a clean break rather than get paraded through a Julius Erving-style farewell tour. He may simply be saving everyone a constant stream of contract "updates" as well.
Pierce will play out the string, await word from the Celtics and, when the time comes, address his contract situation. Until then, he will simply play basketball, which is what they are paying him to do anyway.