Paul Pierce looked around, saw a free-agency market crowded with the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki and others (including his once-and-possibly-future teammate Ray Allen), and decided he wanted to join in today, opting out of the final year of his deal with the Celtics and becoming a free agent.
But before you Celtics fans start freaking out, please understand that he will almost certainly wind up coming back.
The reason this offseason is so important to the NBA is that this will be the last one under the league's current collective bargaining agreement. And the labor situation in the NBA right now is . . . not great, to put it mildly. The consensus is that there will almost certainly be a lockout at some point next season, and the next CBA will be much less player-friendly. But any new deals signed this offseason will be grandfathered in to the new agreement. In other words, players who have a chance to get paid this year are all going to take it.
As far as Pierce is concerned, he has an opportunity to take a short-term pay cut (to help his team's salary cap situation as they try to replace the minutes of Rasheed Wallace, who retired, and Kendrick Perkins, who will be out until January or so and possibly at reduced effectiveness until spring, up front) in order to guarantee himself more money down the road (by signing for more years now than he would have been offered during next season's offseason of doom).
Also, before you ask, even if the Celtics let Pierce and Ray Allen go, they still probably couldn't quite afford LeBron, Wade, Bosh, or any of the other max-deal guys without some more creative accounting.
Now, if Pierce is insistent upon testing his free-market value, he may very well get a max deal . . . but at best he'd be a Plan B or C after James, Wade, Joe Johnson, and others were already signed, and at that point, he'd be looking at less-competitive franchises like the Clippers. If they really want to hand him a max deal for four years, that's a mistake the Celtics will be happy to let them make.
But that doesn't seem too likely. Pierce has a shot at winning here, and he'll make his money regardless. Indeed, today also came the strongest sign of which direction he's leaning in so far: Doc Rivers, who'd been contemplating retirement, announced he will return to coach for one last go "with this group" (his words). One presumes he would not do that so he could stick around through another rebuilding process. He knows something. It may not be as exciting as some of the player movement happening in the NBA right now, but it seems like a safe guess that Pierce (and Allen) will be back.