Thursday, March 23, 2006


Tommy Points-less

"We are what we pretend to be" – Kurt Vonnegut, “Mother Night.”


Tommy Heinsohn has every right to trade in on his own legacy for a steady job and the slight adoration of Celtics fans suffering through 15 years of horse latitudes, and if that was all he was and all he did, no one would have any problem with him. It is problematic, however, when he attempts to sully the legacy of the last truly great Celtic in an effort to prostitute a losing team to a disgruntled fanbase and burnish his own fading relevance.

For those who don’t know anything about this, here’s the general idea – Tommy Heinsohn, Celtics broadcaster, went to the Boston Herald proclaiming that Paul Pierce is a better “offensive player” than Larry Bird. His comments come at a point in the Celtics season when they are facing the reality of not making the playoffs, and with fan interest yet again fading away. It is not something that came out of the blue, he made essentially the same comments a few weeks ago during a broadcast, but they have caused something of an uproar on both sides of the argument, and thus we feel the need to weigh in.

Part I – A History of (Logical) Violence

Tommy Heinsohn’s public persona has evolved over the past 20 years from a likeable “homer” with a deceptively astute basketball mind, into a hack and an egotistical windbag who uses his soapbox on FSN to stroke ownership and repaint his version of Celtics history. As such, he is far more engaged in the process of promoting “Heinsohn the Broadcast Legend” than he is with providing accurate or even interesting commentary about the team. This is something we have all kind of come to expect and even find vaguely likeable, or at very least, comfortably familiar. Heinsohn’s distortions often just fade into the background, allowing his occasional funny/charming moments to surface as always-welcomed nuggets of nostalgia. Compared to the excessively dry (or ridiculously hyper-masculine) tropes of modern basketball broadcasting, Tommy’s nonsense stands in relief as some kind of nod to a past that probably never even existed.

For those who follow this team way to closely, however it has always been apparent that Heinsohn has at least a small bit of resentment for the Celtics teams of the 80’s, probably because they overshadowed the 70’s championship teams that Heinsohn coached, the teams which to this day remain the most uncelebrated era of the team’s history.

More importantly, however, the 1980’s teams simply didn’t NEED Tommy Heinsohn. They were great, they were fun to watch, and they were intrinsically entertaining. They also had Johnny Most as the superfan-broadcaster, Bob Cousy as resident legend/expert, and the most relevant games (Finals) broadcast on national television (as an aside, it is telling that it is only on FSN promos you’ll see the Sportschannel camera angle and Gorman’s call from Game 5 against the Pistons in 1987 when Bird stole the ball. Everywhere else you’ll see CBS’s shot and hear Johnny Most)

The point is, Tommy Heinsohn wasn’t so inseparably woven into the fabric of the Celtics viewing experience as he today. He was a sideman in a much bigger show, a show that centered on Larry Bird, the Boston Garden and the then relevant notion of “Celtics Pride.” In that context he was likeable but hardly vital. He rooted openly for the Celtics, yes, but he was occasionally critical, hardly an apologist, and maintained enough national credibility to serve as a CBS playoff broadcaster.

It was in the years that followed, the years wherein the Celtics fanbase dwindled, their luck ran out, ownership lost focus, and, most importantly, Johnny Most died, that Tommy reinvented himself as The Ultimate Homer. In this role, Tommy eventually realized that the most imposing obstacle to fans appreciating the “current” team was the legacy of success it competed with and constantly fell short against. If people were to remain interested in the mediocre present, then the past would need to be demystified. At the same time, the new fans, the younger ones who barely remembered Bird or the 80’s, were more able to be indoctrinated by funny Tommy as he bitched about the referees, compared rookies to JoJo White and other players they had never heard of, and eventually, consummated his cult-of-personality with the creation of “Tommy Points.”

Through it all, we heard the exaggeration and the wild comparisons - some bordering on egregiously stupid, some actually interesting. Rick Pitino was bringing back “old fashioned Celtics basketball,” Ron Mercer reminded him of Sam Jones, Al Jefferson has more moves at his age than Kevin McHale. These kinds of things were viewed as harmless, because they evoked hopefully hyperbole more than any kind of actual critique. They were the enthusiastic encouragement of the old guard, unafraid to compare the legacy of the old with the potential of the new.

But in this Bird/Pierce comparison, it is as if Heinsohn has finally abandoned all pretense of reason and is now actively burning down the remains of Celtics legacy in order to pimp “his” team of today. No longer is it potential or promise, but now Heinsohn wants you to believe that a two-month hot streak from Pierce demands his coronation with the true greats, ie – he implies that on some level what you’re seeing now is better than what you believe was the best you ever saw. And Heinshon the basketball mind can justify Heinshon-the-Shill’s comments with the way he parses the words (“offensive player”) to leave room for whatever it is that you the fan still treasures in your memories of Larry Bird and the 80’s Celtics. Unfortunately, 3 MVP’s, 3 championships, six 60+ win seasons, and a fuckload of shared memories need a lot more room than Tommy’s half-assed qualification.

But this leads us to the key question, what exactly does Heinsohn mean when he says that Paul Pierce is a superior “offensive player?”

Part II – Highly Offensive Player

The basic argument espoused by Heinsohn is that Pierce’s offensive technique is more varied, more explosive and thus, more potent than Larry Bird’s. Pierce is able to score in different ways than Larry, thus he is “better.” The numbers will never be able to solve this argument, but they are certainly interesting.

Over the course of his 13 seasons in the NBA, Larry Bird averaged 24.3 points a game, including two seasons averaging 28 ppg, one where he went for 29.9. His career shooting percentage is .496, career free throw percentage is .886, .376 from the 3 point line. During the insane 87-88 season, he averaged 29.9 ppg and shot .527 from the floor.

Paul Pierce over the course of 8 seasons (we will, for the sake of this argument, freeze his statistics for this year at this point and call it an 8th “full” season) has averaged 23.4 ppg with a career shooting average of .440, career free throw percentage of .791, and .358 from the 3 point line. Like Bird, he has had 4 seasons where he eclipsed the 25 ppg scoring average. Where Pierce has a most obvious advantage is in free throw shooting, as he has averaged 6.3 makes and 8.0 attempts a game, vs. Bird’s 4.4 and 5.0. Pierce’s 8 attempts a game rank 2nd all time for the squad behind Ed Macauley (who Tommy is likely to one day compare to Orien Greene).

Comparing other offensive stats, the most glaring differential is in assists – Bird averaged 6.3 for his career while Pierce to this point has averaged 3.8. This is even more interesting when one considers that both players average 3.1 turnovers a game.

In terms of “offensive explosions,” Bird has the advantage. Bird has the single game Celtics scoring record with 60 pts, and went for 50 or more 4 times (3 of which occurred during his first 8 seasons). Pierce’s career high is 50, and that is the sole time he accomplished that benchmark.

Examining all of this, a fairly clear picture emerges – both players can score, but Bird was a better shooter, more efficient, and made his team better. A streaky shooter, Pierce is far more effective at getting to the rim and drawing fouls, and is more of a volume scorer than a playmaker.

So again, what makes a superior “offensive player”? Is it the guy who scores more points, is it the guy who shoots better, is it the guy who makes his team better? Unfortunately for Heinsohn’s thesis, as of this date, Bird still outpaces Pierce in every single one of these categories. This doesn’t even bring in the whole issue of clutch shooting, of offensive intangibles, or of leadership. Again, this is where Bird is not only better than Pierce, but where he was better than anyone in his era not named Magic Johnson. And maybe that’s a better way to look at it, because as Celtics fans, we all harbor the kinds of suspicions about our idols that are natural by-products of over-familiarity. So ask yourself this, is Paul Pierce a better offensive player than Magic Johnson? I think most would agree that it’s idiocy to even ask the question.

In that same sense, are we to assume that Dominique Wilkins is a better offensive player than Bird because his scoring numbers were slightly higher during the period they were both in the league together? It’s a valid question, not only because Pierce’s numbers correspond more closely to Dominique’s, but also because it begs the question, if we want to consider player A better the player B, but B was a winner and A wasn’t, what does this mean? There is no doubt to me that Wilkins was a much better scorer than Bird, but Bird was the much better “offensive player” because he won, he hit more clutch shots, and he made his teammates better. If, as most would probably agree, Bird is better than Dominique (who nonetheless has one of the most underrated legacies in all of sport), than there’s no fucking way that Pierce even enters the conversation.

Unfortunately, the “winning” thing plays into the argument, often expressed by Pierce-lovers, that “Larry played with Hall of Famers and Pierce plays with inferior NBDL-level talent.” This is very, very, very debatable, because it presupposes that Bird’s legacy as a winner relies more on the later part of his career more than the beginning. But if you look at the numbers, Bird was successful with pretty much any kind of supporting cast, and just as importantly, he transformed his supporting cast into great players.

1) The 1978-1979 team that finished 29-53 and the 1979-1980 team that went 61-21 and lost to the 76’ers in the conference Finals were essentially the same team. The only significant differences were Larry Bird instead of Bob McAdoo, and Bill Fitch as coach instead of Dave Cowens. But each team’s core was basically Cedric Maxwell, Tiny Archibald, Dave Cowens, Rick Robey and Chris Ford. It is not a stretch to say that Bird essentially accounted for a 32 game swing.
2) The 1987-1988 team went 57-25. The next year was Bird’s injury year where he played 6 games, and that team, with HOF’ers McHale and Parish, went 42-40. Not even the 1st post-Jordan Bulls had such a fall off.

Part III – Senility and the case for memory

Ultimately, those who remember Bird will dismiss Heinsohn as being an idiot or a shill (Bill Simmons has already dismissed him as “old” ie – senile), and the younger fans will accept in varying degrees the idea that one cannot compare two players who ultimately play a very different game (both in style and in era). These younger fans, however, don’t have the access to the memories of a tougher, more competitive league that Bird thrived in as one of its two greatest winners (I consider Bird and Magic’s league to be the pre-expansion, pre-Jordan-as-winner league that existed between 80-88, comprising the two best teams of its time, the 86 Celtics and 87 Lakers). Because of this, these fans will not have the visceral reaction to having one of the 5 greatest players of ALL TIME compared to the best player on a losing team. It will simply seem, in their minds, unrealistic.

And that is why the comparison is so unfair to Pierce. It only digs up the animosity and doubt that he so successfully quelled this year with a brilliant season. It casts him again in the unfavorable glare of the past, a past which he will never be reconciled with by the fans until he wins a championship or an MVP, two unlikely milestones in his career. It makes us once more resent a present that we are trying hard to appreciate.

The thing is, Bird really did exist, he really was that good and he really made everyone around him better. Even if his legend to some degree exceeds his reality, it is important to let fans hold on to certain memories as sacred. It is the careful balance between honoring its past and constantly reinventing its “now” that makes sports uniquely visceral and historic. So whether Tommy’s comments are ticket-moving marching orders dictated by Wyc, or his own mercenary effort to reassert his place in Celtics lore (in this case, as would-be-kingmaker), it is to his shame that he so willingly pisses all over a legend the rest of us happen to cherish.

To close this far too lengthy argument, I’ll put it simply - throughout the vast majority of Bird’s career he was considered to be one of the top three players in the game. Pierce has made the all-NBA third team twice. No one in their right mind really thinks that Paul Pierce is a better player than Bird, but when Heinsohn throws out these kinds of inflammatory comments, he does in an effort to chisel away at a belief, a legend, which has always marginalized him in the hearts of Celtics fans. That’s why I personally find his words to be despicable and shameless. Not only does Larry Bird’s legacy deserve better, but so does Tommy Heinsohn’s.

(all statistics courtesy of

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