Eastern conference rivals were ecstatic last month when the Celtics dealt All-Star forward Antoine Walker and guard Tony Delk to the Mavericks for 6'11" Raef LaFrentz, guard Jiri Welsch, forward Chris Mills and a No. 1 pick in 2004. But Boston general manager Danny Ainge says they failed to take into account how the trade enhanced the role of his remaining All-Star, 6'6" swingman Paul Pierce.
With Walker gone, Pierce became the Celtics' undisputed leader, and Ainge believes that will help Pierce close the gap on the reigning stars at his position, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady. "With his work habits I think Paul can catch up with those few guys who are maybe a bit more talented," says Ainge. "I've never seen a guy with his talent play and work as hard as Paul—and I played with Larry Bird."
Paul Pierce and Larry Bird? The comparison will draw scoffs around the league, where many view Pierce as a me-first player—a perception that spread after his hefty shot count for the U.S. at the 2002 world championships. "I see a little bit of that," says Ainge, referring to Pierce's selfishness. "But I also see that in the players I love: Michael Jordan, McGrady, Bird. Great players need to be selfish at times. In the past Paul has done it because of a desire to win or because of a lack of trust in his teammates, not because he wants all the glory. I really believe Paul wants to win."
Though his shooting percentage plummeted to a career-low 41.6 last season, Pierce averaged career highs in rebounding (a team-leading 73) and assists (4.4), convincing Ainge that he can be an all-around superstar. Pierce spent a quiet summer seeking advice on leadership from mentors Magic Johnson and JoJo White with the understanding that Walker was going to be traded toward the end of 2003-04.
"I thought this was going to be our last year together," Pierce says. "But in the long run it's going to help me because I know everybody on the team is going to be watching my every move. I can't have any letdowns, I can't be a bad example for the other guys. I have to watch what I'm saying, what I'm doing. Because that's what a leader's all about."
The early results were encouraging. With Pierce averaging 23.7 points—2.2 fewer than he did last season—the Celtics won two of their first three games by pushing the tempo, sharing the ball and incorporating a resurgent Vin Baker into the offense. Pierce's trust in his teammates rose after he fouled out at Memphis last Friday, then watched as journeyman point guard Mike James stole the 93-91 win on a jumper with 1.8 seconds to play.
Pierce will never be the vocal leader that Walker is, but then neither was Bird. "I saw Paul diving on the floor and taking charges on the first day of training camp to set the tone for his team," Ainge says. "That's what Larry did. You make players better by teaching them to compete, and Paul is that type of leader."