Was Paul Pierce Really Better Than Dwyane Wade?

Paul Pierce caused quite a stir when he claimed on national television that he had a better career than Dwyane Wade.

The reaction on social media was divided, with Celtics fans of course agreeing with Pierce and the NBA Twitter barbershop generally coming down on the side of D-Wade.

Plenty of folks advanced the theory that Pierce is still bitter about his legacy since he didn’t get the Kobe Bryant/Dirk Nowitzki/”One Last Dance” lovefest that other stars got.

And the statheads pointed out that the race is tighter than you realize.

Your intrepid columnist is all set to wade into the discussion and pierce the veil of the debate. And after a bit of back-and-forth with Celtics fan and writer emeritus Zach d’Arbeloff (see this Twitter exchange…)

…it’s time to weigh in with my thoughts.

And of course, since this is Pace and Space, we do not traffic in sentiment here. We enforce Sheed’s Law, so let’s ask the always-honest ball what it thinks.

Peak Seasons: Wade

Any discussion of “who was better” must consider the player “at his absolute apex”, to use a piece of phrasing that Bill Simmons always uses as a verbal tic in his writing.

For D-Wade, that’s either the 2005-06 season, where he won his first championship, or the ’08-09 year, when he was finally healthy for a full season for the first time in three years, won the scoring title, and finished third in the MVP race.

In ’06, Wade averaged 27.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 6.7 assists, shot 49.5 percent from the field, posted a 7.5 BPM, 27.6 PER, and .239 WS/48, and managed to completely outshine Shaquille O’Neal (who played in only 59 regular-season games and posted just 2.1 VORP—a lot of historical revisionism goes into that ’06 Heat team, but it was Wade’s apotheosis. Shaq was 33 and already on the downside of his career, more like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing second fiddle to Magic Johnson on the Lakers than Kareem’s years with the Bucks.)

In ’09, on a truly atrocious Heat team, Wade had what was essentially his 2006 Kobe Bryant/2017 Russell Westbrook season, putting a garbage team that had won 15 games the previous year with Wade injured on his back and carrying them to 43 wins and a seven-game first-round playoff exit against the Atlanta Hawks.

Wade averaged 30.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game, won the scoring title, posted .232 WS/48, an insane 9.7 VORP (or about 26 wins by himself, in a season where the Heat won 28 more games than the previous year), and a career-high 10.7 BPM. He was third in the MVP voting, and considering LeBron James‘ 2008-09 campaign (31.7 PER, .318 WS/48, 13.0 BPM, 11.6 VORP, one of the greatest seasons by an individual player of all time), D-Wade wasn’t winning any awards that year.

But at the same time, D-Wade had a true superstar season. Pierce, meanwhile…

Peak Seasons: Pierce

Paul Pierce was always very good and never quite great.

Pierce never cracked 27 points per game. Never averaged more than 7.3 rebounds or 5.1 assists. And never posted a PER above 23.6.

He hit the 5 VORP mark only once, in 2001-02 (5.7.) Never cracked 5 BPM (4.9, also in ’01-02.) Only hit the “superstar minimum” of .200 WS/48 twice, in 2007-08 (.207) and ’10-11 (.202), the superstar minimum existing at the point where a team of nothing but that player would be expected to win 82 games in an 82-game season.

Wade in his prime was better by a country mile than Pierce in his.

And when Wade had true garbage for a supporting cast, in that ’08-09 season, he put on a performance that was an honest-to-gods all-time great kind of season.

When Pierce languished on lousy Celtics teams, he never once looked like a guy who could drag a team into the playoffs by himself.

Peak Wade is so much better than Peak Pierce that it’s a joke to compare them.

Overall Legacy

Where Pierce gains in the discussion is in considering overall legacy; Pierce may never have been on Wade’s peak level, but longevity matters, and sustained excellence over a long career matters.

Basketball Reference crunched the numbers so you don’t have to, and what their machine spat out was this for counting stats…

Pierce: 1343 games, 26.397 points, 7,527 rebounds, 4,708 assists, 1,752 steals, 745 blocks, .445 FG%, .368 3PT%, .806 FT%, .500 eFG%.

Wade: 1051 games, 23,089 points, 4,916 rebounds, 5,683 assists, 1,620 steals, 883 blocks, .480 FG%, .292 3PT%, .765 FT%, .495 eFG%.

Wade was a better scorer and made three All-Defensive teams and eight All-NBA teams to Pierce’s zero and four respectively.

But Pierce was better at staying healthy and, year in and year out, was always very good even as he was never one of those guys who made you think you’d want to build a franchise around him.

And Wade has that big elephant in the room of having been the best player on a championship team; Pierce was indisputably the second-best player (behind Kevin Garnett) on the ’08 Celtics.

And then there’s the advanced stats…

Pierce: 19.7 PER, .568 TS%, .157 WS/48, 3.3 BPM, 3.75 VORP/82
Wade: 23.5 PER, .554 TS%, .162 WS/48, 4.5 BPM, 4.55 VORP/82.

Pierce was a more efficient shooter because he was a better free-throw shooter and unlike Wade could actually hit a three-pointer (Wade’s in that Charles Barkley/Westbrook universe of guys who make you cringe every time they hoist up a long ball.)

And again, Wade could carry a bad team to the playoffs by himself…Pierce never did.

THE VERDICT!

Was Paul Pierce, as he claims, better than Dwyane Wade?

No. The race is close enough that it’s not a complete go-home-you’re-drunk laugher, but the simple fact of the matter is that in terms of both peak seasons and cumulative advanced stats, Wade wins almost every category.

Throw in the barroom favorite of “count the rings”, add in the fact that Pierce was never the best player on a title team while Wade was, and that does it.

No. Paul Pierce was not better than Dwyane Wade.