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Staying Power
A house call from Doc and a commitment to the rebuilding process have the Celtics' Paul Pierce off to his best start ever

Paul Pierce to the Clippers for Corey Maggette? Paul Pierce to the Nuggets for Andre Miller and Nenê? Not so fast. Paul Pierce has another destination in mind: Boston. So dismiss--for now, anyway--those trade rumors involving the Celtics' star swingman, who is attempting to mend his damaged reputation and his fractured relationship with coach Doc Rivers. "The only way this team is going to be successful is if me and [Rivers] get along," Pierce says. "If your best player is having a rift with the coach, it's not going to be a good situation, and I've come to that realization."

The Pierce-Rivers marriage bottomed out in Game 7 of the opening round of last season's playoffs against the Pacers. Pierce had been ejected from Game 6 (a Boston victory). In the finale--an eventual 97-70 Indiana win--the Celtics' captain yelled at his coach during a team huddle. "I understood the pressure he was under," says Rivers. "I was on Paul pretty hard about defensive things, and he didn't take it well. But I didn't take [the outburst] personally."

The 28-year-old Pierce's star has been on the wane since the spring of 2002, when he and Antoine Walker led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals. That summer Pierce became the scapegoat for Team USA's sixth-place finish at the FIBA world championships in Indianapolis; sources close to the USA Basketball selection committee say that Pierce's detrimental conduct during the worlds--which has never been publicly detailed--kept him from being considered for the 2004 Olympic team. Meanwhile the Celtics, under a new ownership group and with Danny Ainge installed as executive director of basketball operations, traded Walker in October 2003 and surrounded Pierce with a young, unproven supporting cast. Finally, before the start of last season, Rivers became Pierce's fourth coach in as many years."It was like the ship was sinking from the top down," Pierce says.

Pierce was at his best during the '02 playoff run when the Celtics, employing a controlled pace, created one-on-one scoring opportunities for him in the half-court. When Rivers asked him to help push the tempo, Pierce could often be seen lagging; in the half-court he continued to pound the ball instead of distributing it. "It was frustrating for me to sacrifice so much for a lot of young players," Pierce admits.

During the off-season Pierce debated whether to demand a trade. "Were there times when I thought I wanted to be somewhere else? Of course," says Pierce, who has three seasons left on a six-year, $84 million contract. However, when he heard predraft rumors that the Trail Blazers were attempting to acquire him for guard Nick Van Exel (whose contract was not guaranteed) and the No. 3 overall pick (which Ainge would have used for point guard Chris Paul), he instructed his agent, Jeff Schwartz, to relay his displeasure to both teams. "There was no way I was going to Portland," says Pierce.

In July, Rivers sought a meeting with his disgruntled star in Las Vegas, where Pierce keeps an off-season home. "I wanted Paul to know I was on his side," Rivers says, "and I think he left the meeting feeling that way."

This season Pierce is running the floor--both ways--and he isn't dribbling nearly as much. "I'm playing some of the best ball I've ever played," says Pierce, who at week's end was averaging 26.1 points and 8.4 rebounds and shooting 48.6%--all higher than his career-best numbers.

Though he appears to be on the same page as Rivers, Pierce will remain the subject of trade speculation, especially considering the likelihood that the Celtics won't reach the postseason. Denver, Utah and Minnesota are teams that would benefit by adding Pierce to their backcourts.

Instead of starting over elsewhere, however, Pierce is adamant about finishing the rebuilding job. "Are we a championship contender today?" Pierce says. "Probably not, but I feel like I have seven or eight good years left, and [we have] to start somewhere."

Four for Sale?

While trade speculation about big-ticket players will heat up in December, the following less-celebrated names are better bets to be shopped. (As for rumors involving the Big Ticket: Kevin Garnett isn't going anywhere.)

Tim Thomas, Bulls (right). The forward's expiring contract and $14 million salary could net Chicago the frontcourt scorer (Seattle's Vladimir Radmanovic?) it needs.

Earl Watson, Nuggets. His price is high ($29 million for five years), but the demand for point guards is great.

Devean George, Lakers. Nearing the end of his deal (at $5 million a year), the veteran forward could be swapped for a big man.

Dan Gadzuric, Bucks. Full up in the frontcourt, Milwaukee could unload Gadzuric to a contender hungry for a high-energy center who doesn't mind the dirty work.



 BOUNCE BACK A rumored trade to Portland helped Pierce view Boston in a new light.