The Boston Celtics haven't lacked for buzz this preseason, and there's been no shortage of storylines.
Offseason additions like Jason Terry and Courtney Lee have drawn plenty of headlines, as has Jeff Green's inspired play after sitting out all of last season and undergoing surgery for an aortic aneurysm. The hype machine is already spinning out of control for rookie Jared Sullinger, while Rajon Rondo's leadership and Kevin Garnett's return were monster offseason headlines among the veterans.
And yet you're more likely to hear a spirited debate about the potential impact of low-risk, high-reward, minimum-contract signings like Darko Milicic or Leandro Barbosa than hear someone talk about Paul Pierce.
Ah yes, the captain. Entering his 15th season, Pierce is easily the team's most expensive player (his $16.8 million salary is about 50 percent more than Garnett and Rondo will earn) and yet he still manages to fly quietly under the radar despite how integral he remains to Boston's success.
Pierce kicked his preseason form up a notch this week, erupting for 29 points on 10-of-17 shooting on Tuesday against Brooklyn, then shook off a first-half ankle injury to drop 18 points on the Nets in Boston's dominating victory Thursday at the Barclays Center.
Pierce has put together a sneaky strong preseason, averaging 16.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.3 assists over 23.2 minutes per game. Dig deeper and, through six contests, he is averaging 1.254 points per play, ranking in the 92nd percentile among all NBA players, according to Synergy Sports data.
Not to get too worked up about exhibition numbers, but Pierce is averaging 1.73 points per play in transition opportunities, the best in the league, having scored 38 points on 22 plays (he's 11-of-14 shooting in transition and has landed at the free throw line often).
Twice in the opening 75 seconds of Thursday's win over the Nets, the ball found Pierce in transition. First he drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing, then followed with an emphatic two-handed jam as a trailer while running the floor with Garnett.
That mere glimpse suggests there's a little extra spring in Pierce's step, even after turning 35 earlier this month and having rehabbed a knee injury this offseason (one that nagged him throughout the postseason last year).
That's a stark contrast to the not-quite-ready-for-the-season Pierce that arrived at camp last year when the lockout abruptly lifted. He suffered an Achilles injury early in camp that affected him for much of the first half of the season, and it's not happenstance that the Celtics struggled mightily during that stretch.
But Pierce deemed himself healthy entering camp and his play in recent games suggests he's ready to go. So what exactly can we expect from Pierce this season?
Pierce struggled mightily with his 3-point shot last season, but he's shooting 58.3 percent beyond the arc this preseason. That's frightening news for opponents. Even with all the added offensive options on Boston's roster, Pierce could maintain (or exceed?) his scoring average if he continues to shoot the 3-ball that well (particularly given the number of opportunities he'll generate in transition from his preferred spot on the right wing).
"He's a scorer," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said earlier this preseason. "Scoring is hard in our league. When you can get a consistent scorer in our league, you start depending on that, so we depend on Paul, to even be better this year offensively."
Added Rivers: "He's our scoring rock for sure. That's who we go to, and that's who we will always go to. I don't know if he's been overlooked or not, but I think he's been here so long, he's like Groundhog Day, you just assume he's coming back year in and year out, and that's who he is. That's probably how he likes it. I don't think Paul cares one way or the other."
Pierce said before camp that he doesn't know for sure if he would have come back to Boston if Garnett didn't re-sign. Pierce struggled with the thought of going through another rebuilding process, and retirement could have been a long-shot option (though Rivers dismissed the suggestion).
Pierce's future beyond this season is somewhat murky. The Celtics will be on the hook for $15.3 million next season, but only $5 million is guaranteed. After both Garnett and Terry inked three-year deals this offseason, Boston seems committed to riding this veteran core through the 2014-15 campaign, but there's options like the low-money guarantee if the Celtics desire to close the window earlier.
Then again, if Pierce is playing like he has this preseason, there's no reason to slam the window. In fact, the quieter the better for him. It's times like these when no one is focused on Pierce that he proves just how valuable he is to this team.