Ed. Note: Evans Clinchy is a Bostonian and active member of the hoops blogosphere. He’s covered the Celtics for five seasons, with his writing appearing on CelticsBlog, NESN, and SI (among other places). You can follow him, his thoughts, and his writing on Twitter. He wrote this piece after watching the Nets fall short in the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Heat.
I reckon the hardest thing about being an NBA superstar in the final years of your career is that your athletic talents leave you far sooner than your pride does.
You spend your entire life being told by everyone, everywhere you turn, that you’re the biggest badass on the block. Superiority isn’t a complex you develop, or a show you put on – it’s just your reality. How can it not have an effect on you? Of all the seven billion-plus people walking the Earth, you’re better at this game than all but a handful of them.
And then suddenly, you’re not.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life watching Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and I’ve enjoyed observing their dominance while staving off a creeping feeling that inevitably, it would fade. Now, in 2014, seven years after they came together in the summer of 2007 in Boston, we’re definitively seeing that fading happen. The two vets are still chugging away in Brooklyn, doing their damnedest to win another ring together, but it’s getting clearer and clearer that that will never happen. That’s hard enough for me to stomach; I can’t imagine what it must be like for them.
As I watched the two vets and the rest of their Nets teammates sputter away in the final minutes of Game 5 against the Heat last night, I thought about KG and Pierce and where they’re at right now in their careers, and by extension, their lives. The word that kept coming back to me was “disconnect.” Everywhere you look, it’s what you see.
There’s a disconnect between those guys’ eternal pride and their current capabilities. KG thought he was coming to Brooklyn to team up with Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and win a championship. Pierce still puffs out his chest after a big shot and declares “That’s why they brought me here!” He still demands to guard LeBron James in a must-win game. He’s still stuck in that belief that he’s LeBron’s rival – the persistent thorn in the King’s side. That notion has been romanticized since 2008, but it rings hollow in 2014.
There’s even a disconnect between these players’ minds and their own bodies. You watch Pierce nowadays, and he occasionally has moments where he’s practically forgotten how to dribble a basketball. His brain tells him to move at one pace, his arms and legs can only operate at another, and the ball gets caught somewhere in the middle, bobbled around until the inevitable turnover. In his own mind, The Truth is still the Truth, but physically, he can’t keep up with himself.
In this way, Pierce has become the exact opposite of James. What makes LeBron the absolute best is the perfect synchronization of his mind and body – he has an off-the-charts basketball IQ and an ability to see plays unfold in his head before they even happen on the floor, and he combines that capability with a human body that’s bigger and faster than any human body should be allowed to be. Pierce doesn’t have that combination anymore. He still has the smarts he’s always had, but he doesn’t have the skills to complement them.
Both Garnett and Pierce have an adaptable “old man game” side to them. Garnett has evolved into an 18-foot jump shooter rather than a big banger in the post, and defensively he still has the tactical chops and the voice to direct a collective five-man unit well, even if he’s a step slow himself. As for Pierce, he’s still a big-time shotmaker, and he still has the size and strength to muscle up against anyone defensively, three or four.
But you can see it slipping away. Especially in KG’s case, but perhaps Pierce’s too, there will come a point in the perhaps-not-too-distant future when they just don’t have it in them to run up and down a basketball court all night. You have to wonder how they’ll handle it.
This is when the disconnect will be truly tested. What happens when their bodies are completely shot, but their competitive spirits refuse to go away?
This dilemma is bad enough for hardcore fans, who lie awake some nights worrying about the futures of their teams. But for the players, it’s far, far worse. This is more than their livelihoods – it’s their lives. Guys like KG and Pierce might be celebrities, and millionaires many times over, but there are times like these when I certainly don’t envy them.