Celtics' Rivers Opts In, Pierce Opts Out

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As Celtics fans woke up Wednesday morning to find that Paul Pierce had decided to opt out of the final year of his contract, many were worried that the team's core would be destroyed. But Wednesday afternoon The Boston Globe first reported that Doc Rivers, who had been mulling leaving the team, will return to coach the team this season.

As a free agent, Pierce could leave Boston, but it’s unlikely that Rivers would return to coach a team without Pierce and the rest of its veteran nucleus largely intact. With Rivers' return imminent, the big question on the mind of Celtics fans is: what will happen with the captain?

Paul Pierce holds the NBA Finals MVP trophy after the Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers to win the 2008 title. (AP)
Paul Pierce holds the NBA Finals MVP trophy after the Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers to win the 2008 title. (AP)

Through the lean times and the fat ones, Pierce has long been the face of the Celtics. In an age in which paychecks rule, Pierce's loyalty earned him the love of the notoriously fickle Boston fan base.

After he decided to opt out, however, many were frustrated to learn that the star may decide to leave the only NBA team he has ever played for.

Pierce has notified the team that he plans to opt out of the final year of his current contract — forfeiting the $21.5 million he was to earn — and will join some of the NBA’s biggest stars as a free agent at midnight on Thursday.

The basketball world hasn’t counted Pierce among the league’s marquee free agents because many assumed that if Pierce were to opt out of his contact he would merely re-sign with Boston. That’s still the most likely scenario. However, Pierce’s contract situation may be a bit more complicated than many thought.

We know that Pierce left a guaranteed $21.5 million on the table. It’s clear that he’ll want something more than that to come back. If it’s merely the stability of a longer-running contract or a rare no-trade clause, feel confident that Celtics President Danny Ainge will be able to bring Pierce back into the fold. If it’s a maximum contract, we may have already seen Pierce’s last days in the green and white.

By NBA standards, the 32-year-old is considered an old man. (Try to stay calm.) In fact, teams that attempt to sign Pierce to a contract that runs past his 36th birthday will be taxed by the league.  It’s unclear whether Ainge will offer Pierce a gigantic contract, given the miles he’s already put on his treads.

Even if the Celtics match a maximum offer, Pierce may choose to re-sign elsewhere.

Because of the NBA’s salary structure, teams hoping to re-sign players are allowed to offer the highest possible contract.  In the case of LeBron James, whose impending free agency has been giddily anticipated by NBA general managers like the new Twilight movie’s release has been to tween-agers, his most recent team, Cleveland can offer almost $30 million and one extra year of contract stability more than the next best offer.

In Pierce’s case however, the Celtics are only able to offer $3 million more than the next-best offer, due to the peculiar machinations of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement.  With the Celtics’ roster aging rapidly and in a state of flux, that relatively small incentive may not entice Pierce to stay.

Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki is in a similar situation.  He’s the most popular player on his team, widely respected around the league and has already declared his intention to opt out of his contract.  Many teams are sure to have interest in Nowitzki — more so even than Pierce — but Dallas management has said that re-signing Nowitzki is their top offseason priority. The Celtics have yet to make the same claim for Pierce.

Still, re-signing with Boston remains the most likely outcome for Pierce. The Celtics are the only team he’s ever played for after getting drafted out of Kansas in 1998.  He helped lead the team to the 2008 title and won the Finals’ MVP award. This year, he helped the team to within three minutes of another championship, and he’s stated numerous times that he’d like to retire as a Celtic. He’s among the most popular players in team history, which is a lot like being one of the most famous Beatles.

Many players fear that the new collective bargaining agreement that will be implemented after next season will lower player salaries. Pierce may have opted out of his contract only in order to sign a new contact this offseason, before that new CBA is implemented. Conversely, he may be hoping to be a part of the coming free agency bonanza.

It’s unclear what the market for Pierce will be or where he’ll end up. Tomorrow, though, for the first time in 12 years, Paul Pierce won’t (officially) be a member of the Boston Celtics.

This program aired on June 30, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Jeremy Bernfeld Producer
Jeremy Bernfeld was formerly a producer for WBUR.