Last February, the Boston Celtics honored Paul Pierce by retiring his number 34 jersey. It was a ceremony about an hour long with many of his former Celtics teammates in attendance. Later, Pierce lifted his banner up to the rafters of the TD Garden to secure his place among the Celtics greats.
As emotional as this moment was, there was a time early in his career when Boston nearly gave up on him being the face of the franchise.
Paul Pierce for Chris Paul proposal
In a 2013 article by SB Nation’s Kevin Zimmerman, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge talked about a trade that nearly happened which would have sent Pierce to the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets (now New Orleans Pelicans) in exchange for the rights to incoming rookie Chris Paul. Ainge spoke about the possibility during an appearance in Bill Simmons’ B.S. Report.
“You see teams give up on young players so often, right,” Simmons asked. “You were almost ready to trade (Pierce) that summer. Now, if you get Chris Paul back for him …”
“That’s a big factor,” Ainge said in response. “Paul Pierce for Chris Paul. It wasn’t like we were trading him for (someone else) … I love Chris Paul, I think he’s a terrific player.”
And then a few days ago, former Boston Globe reporter Jackie MacMullan was a guest at the “The Lowe Post” podcast where she talked about the time when Daryl Morey, then the SVP Operations for the Celtics, and Ainge nearly pulled the trigger.
They were really close to doing it, too.
“If the Celtics could have done it, they would have,” MacMullan said. “This is how close it was. I worked at The Boston Globe then. There were two ads set to run in the morning edition of The Boston Globe. One was ‘Follow the Celtics and Paul Pierce going forward’ and the other one was ‘A new era beginning’ and a picture of Chris Paul. They had two ads ready to go.”
As we all know, the trade never materialized as the Celtics rolled the dice with their 18th pick and chose Gerald Green instead.
Three years later, the Celtics were celebrating their 17th NBA championship with Pierce as the Finals MVP. Paul, meanwhile, enjoyed his best year yet in which he was named an All-Star for the first time in his career.
Had the trade pushed through, could the Celtics have won the championship in 2008? Would the New Orleans have found a way to surround Pierce with the right talent to make a deep playoff run?
Let’s analyze the Celtics’ roster at the time, their succeeding draft choices, and the trade that would send Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to the Celtics. Then, we’ll look into the Hornets future and whether they could have had a better chance against the West’s best with Pierce taking the lead.
Chris Paul to the Boston Celtics
If the Celtics had acquired Paul, it would have signaled a rebuilding mode for the franchise.
At the time, the Celtics’ core players consisted of guards Tony Allen, Marcus Banks, Ricky Davis, and Delonte West, forwards Wally Szczerbiak, Al Jefferson, and Raef LaFrentz, and centers Michael Olowokandi and Kendrick Perkins.
The starting lineup could have looked like this:
PG – Chris Paul
SG – Ricky Davis
SF – Wally Szczerbiak
PF – Al Jefferson
C – Michael Olowokandi
Could this lineup have made the playoffs? In his freshman year, Paul was good enough to win Rookie of the Year honors as he led the Hornets to a 20-win improvement from the previous season. That’s how much of an impact Paul makes on a team’s culture.
When he was traded to the L.A. Clippers from the Hornets, they improved by eight wins. This season with the Rockets, they have already eclipsed their 55-win season with still 12 games left on the schedule. They are projected to finish the season at 66 wins and 16 losses, an 11-game improvement from last year.
If we used these as the barometer for how much better the Celtics would be from the 2004-05 season in which they had a 45-37 record, I’m projecting they could have won at least 56 games with Paul in 2005-06 rather than the 33-49 record they ended up with.
They would have led the Atlantic Division in the standings and a second seed in the playoffs. Though I doubt they would have gone as far as the conference finals, Paul and the Celtics could have made some noise in the postseason.
That would have also dropped the Celtics out of the lottery in the 2006 draft. Rather than picking seventh, they would have had somewhere between the 21st to the 23rd pick. There wasn’t much talent left by then as they would not have traded for or drafted Rajon Rondo (number 21 by the Phoenix Suns) themselves since they were all set with Paul at the point guard spot.
Rather than rebuild, the Celtics would have only needed to shore up their lineup with an All-Star-caliber player at the guard or small forward position as Jefferson was an improving young big man at the time.
But here’s where hindsight reveals that Ainge was wise not to trade for Paul in 2005. Without the draft picks that were required to acquire Allen and Garnett, there might not have been enough pieces to make a trade for one or both of those players. Sure, a Garnett for Jefferson swap was still a possibility, but the Minnesota Timberwolves would have asked for additional young talent if they weren’t getting high draft picks in succeeding drafts.
Plus, Garnett would not have been agreeable to a trade that would essentially get him to play with too many young players. Consequently, there would be no long-term commitment from him so the Celtics wouldn’t push through with the trade anyway since Garnett was only signed for one more year.
While the Celtics would have built a strong foundation with the young talents they had with Paul and Jefferson, there are fewer chances that they would have been a championship-caliber team eventually, and not sooner than 2008.
What would be most affected by the swap is the NBA Finals and possibly the champion from 2008 to 2010.
Without the Celtics as a superpower in the East, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers would have emerged as the top team. The Cavs could have made it to the 2008 NBA Finals against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers instead of the Celtics.
Remember, it was the Celtics that ended the Cavs’ season in the Eastern Conference semifinals that year. Since the Cavs had defeated the Detroit Pistons a year ago en route to a Finals appearance, they could have done the same a year later.
That would have certainly changed the entire NBA landscape. James would not have made The Decision to move to the Miami Heat in 2010 since they would be the perennial powerhouse in the East. Could they have won a championship between 2008 and 2010? Possibly. James may have won a title earlier rather than earning it in 2012.
More importantly, we could have witnessed a LeBron vs. Kobe title match-up, something that we were robbed of because the Cavaliers and the Lakers never met in the championship round.
Paul Pierce to New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets
If Paul Pierce played for the Hornets, they would have had a core lineup that included guards Speedy Claxton and J.R. Smith, forwards Desmond Mason, Rasual Butler, David West and Brandon Bass, and centers Chris Andersen and P.J. Brown.
Here’s how their starting lineup could have looked like:
PG – Speedy Claxton
SG – J.R. Smith
SF – Paul Pierce
PF – David West
C – P.J. Brown
Without Paul as a starting point guard, the Hornets could have looked for a veteran playmaker rather than hand off the keys to the team to Claxton. As good as Pierce is, it’s unlikely that this team could win as much without the quarterbacking talents of Paul. The Hornets would have definitely won a few more games with the addition of Pierce. But instead of a 20-win improvement, that number would have amounted to about eight more wins.
Don’t get me wrong. Pierce was an amazing talent. But he couldn’t carry the Celtics alone and he wouldn’t be able to carry this Hornets team either. With eight more wins, the Hornets would have had a record of 26-54. Still a dismal record that would have given them the second-worst record in the West and a three-way tie for the third worst record in the league at the time.
That would land the Hornets in the lottery, and a chance for one of the top picks in the 2006 draft. Assuming that they pick somewhere between the third and the fifth pick, the Hornets could have chosen Brandon Roy and made him their starting shooting guard.
That means that the core players for the Hornets would be Roy, Pierce and West. Not bad, right? A team with this much firepower could have won more than the 39 wins they did in the 2006-07 season. Their record could at least have improved to 46 wins and a possible sixth-seed in the Western Conference.
The following year, with Roy having his rookie season behind him, it’s not a stretch to believe that they could win 53 to 56 games depending on which players they surround their own version of the Big Three.
But if you look at the standings for the 2007-08 season, that’s exactly where the Hornets would have been anyway with Paul as their point guard without the trade happening.
I doubt they’ll reach the Western Conference Finals and they would likely still fall in seven games to the San Antonio Spurs.
Unlike in the East, however, I don’t see the Hornets making as much of a difference in the West as the Celtics in the East if the Pierce-for-Paul trade happened. The only change would have been the Finals match-ups in the years following the trade.
NBA history would never be the same had the trade pushed through. Fortunately for Boston fans, the Celtics front office decided against the trade, giving the franchise another championship and several years of exciting basketball from 2007-08 to the 2012-13 season.