Two years after retiring, Paul Pierce is building a reputation as an NBA analyst and erring his way into the larger basketball conversation.

By Jacob Feldman
May 15, 2019

Paul Pierce has redefined failing upward this spring. With pitiful takes (he’s a better wing shooter than Klay Thompson, he had a better career than Dwyane Wade) and worse predictions (Celtics will handle the Bucks, Rockets over Warriors “in blowout fashion”), the ESPN analyst has erred his way into the larger basketball conversation.

Fans have chanted his name in taunts. Milwaukee called him out on its jumbotron. But more importantly, people are paying attention.

Charles Barkley remains the king of blogbait, capable of igniting news cycles with a single chirp. But three times this year Pierce has briefly eclipsed him in online interest according to Google Trends data. Small blips, but proof of what’s possible. Pierce fueled two NBA Countdown clips with one million YouTube views each in 2019, while the rest of the show has two combined. He also played a role in the most viewed moment on ESPN’s afternoon NBA show, The Jump, watching himself get crossed up by Jameer Nelson.

All those numbers verify the undeniable. Two years after retiring, Paul Pierce is becoming a TV thing. Maybe that thing is a joke sometimes. But the joke plays.

When prediction time came on Tuesday night’s NBA Countdown, host Michelle Beadle turned to Pierce and spoke to the audience: “Let me preface this by saying I’m sorry for whatever is about to happen.

So far, Pierce hasn’t shown an issue with his growing reputation as an un-Nostradamus. “You know I don’t care about that stuff, man,” he said on a recent press call. “I’ve always been a villain in this league. I’ve always been booed on the road. It’s nothing new…. if I give an opinion on something and they don’t like my answer, then so be it. That’s the way I feel, and people can say what they want to say.”

ESPN’s vice president overseeing NBA production, Michael Shiffman, was sitting with Pierce after the Bucks went up 2-1 and threatened to make the future Hall of Famer look foolish. Pierce decided to tweet a gif from The Office. “He wanted to own it,” Shiffman said.

As a former star capable of generating waves and getting away with mistakes, Pierce has shown higher-ups his potential since before he joined ESPN full-time. The fact he seems to believe everything he’s saying only helps.

Appearing as a guest during the 2017 Finals, Pierce proclaimed Kevin Durant maybe “the best player in the world today.”

“Paul, stop. Paul, stop it,” analyst Chauncey Billups said. “Let me check in that drink.”

“Hey, this is truth juice,” Pierce responded.

He was hired by September.

“He has been a breath of fresh air and his credentials and personality work well with Jalen [Rose], Chauncey and Beadle,” producer Amina Hussein said that summer. “What I have always liked about Paul from afar and even more now working with him is that he is honest and not afraid of the moment.”

Now finishing year two on set, he’s even more in rhythm with that trio, as well as with Rachel Nichols and Tracy McGrady on The Jump

Pierce’s bits provide some reliable surprise for a Countdown show that has morphed multiple times this decade, moving back to L.A. (Pierce’s hometown) this year. Alternating nights with TNT’s award-winning Inside the NBA during the conference finals, it’s clear how much farther the show must go. As for how much longer Pierce can keep his noteworthy run alive, here’s what he said as Countdown signed off ahead of Golden State’s 116-94 win over Portland on Tuesday: I give the edge to the Blazers.

THREE MEDIA-RELATED NBA LOTTERY THOUGHTS

1. ESPN tweaked its lottery presentation schedule this year. The first slots were still revealed around 8:40 p.m. eastern, as usual, but rather than that coming 40 minutes into an hour-long show, it came 10 minutes into a 30-minute show. From 8 until 8:30, the network aired a special version of The Jump live from Chicago. It makes a lot more sense this way—and is exactly how I think March Madness unveilings should be handled as well. The shorter marquee telecast contributed to a 77% ratings increase over last year.

2. It doesn’t seem fair to have cameras trained on presumed top pick Zion Williamson as he learns his fate in real time (“He looked like he had been hit by a truck,” according to Rachel Nichols), unless team leaders are forced to handle the same situation. At least the NBA later tweeted video of Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry reacting to the announcement from where “the real draft lottery” happened in the basement of the Chicago Hilton.

3. Jazz center Rudy Gobert had the take of the night after the 8th and 9th worst teams claimed this year’s top two draft picks thanks to flattened lottery odds: “We just witnessed the end of tanking. And we should be happy about it.” No one should be happier than ESPN. Not only does less incentive to tank mean better basketball during the regular season. More teams in play on lottery night means one of the most fascinating events on the sports calendar will only become a bigger draw.

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