Paul Pierce was stuck in traffic on the LA freeway last summer when Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck called to tell him that his No. 34 would be retired this season.
Of course, Pierce had an idea this day would come. After all, he’d spent his first 15 seasons in Boston, he was the franchise’s second all-time leading scorer, and he’d won a championship. But he did not think he would receive word so soon, just three months after his playing career ended.
On Sunday evening, Pierce sat at a table in the bowels of TD Garden after his number had been retired during an emotional one-hour ceremony, and he considered all who had come before him, and those who might follow. Even though there are now 22 numbers hanging from the rafters, Pierce realized the rate might soon slow down.
“With the way the NBA landscape is and how the collective bargaining agreement is, and player movement all the time,” Pierce said, “I had a chance to think about it. My number could be up there without another number going up there for a long time.
“I think the days that you see a player playing 10-15 years for one franchise are probably over, so that could be really special. Who knows?”
So, who will be next? Or, perhaps more appropriately, who should be next? And what will it take for some current players to someday join the storied group?
■ Kevin Garnett
Garnett is the last obvious choice remaining. He was an All-Star in five of his six seasons with the Celtics, he helped the team to the 2008 NBA title, and he was instrumental in rebooting the franchise’s culture. And if you saw the way the crowd reacted to him during Pierce’s ceremony, you’d see how much the fan base absolutely adored him. That counts for something.
The primary arguments against Garnett being honored are that he spent just six years in Boston and missed an average of 15 games per season, not including the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign.
I think Garnett’s number should go up, but I think the Celtics should wait a couple more seasons to do it. Pierce being honored one year after his retirement as a player is the equivalent of a well-deserved first-ballot choice.
■ Danny Ainge
I’m stunned Ainge hasn’t been discussed more frequently as an option. Young fans today might not realize that he won two NBA titles with the Celtics as a player and was even an All-Star in the 1987-88 season. He scored more points as a Celtic (6,257) than both Garnett and Ray Allen.
But Ainge’s greatest contributions have come off the court. Over the past 10 years, he has completely rebuilt this franchise twice. So many other teams haven’t escaped the tailspin of mediocrity once during that time.
Ainge’s first reboot led to one championship and two Finals appearances, and the current iteration has put the Celtics in position to be one of the league’s elite teams for years to come. He might be the Celtics’ most valuable commodity.
■ Rajon Rondo
The prevailing sentiment seems to be that Rondo is not quite worthy of the distinction, but I’m not so sure. He compares favorably with several of the honorees who have preceded him.
Yes, he could be prickly at times. No, he was not technically part of the artificially named “Big Three.” But he could control a game like few others, he was a homegrown Celtic who spent almost nine years here, he was a four-time All-Star, he led the NBA in steals and assists per game, and he won an NBA title.
And on my first night out in Boston after moving here, a bartender told me that Rondo used to go to the restaurant with his wife and order a Shirley Temple. That’s banner-worthy.
DON’T DO IT
■ Ray Allen
Allen had every right to leave the Celtics and join LeBron James and the Heat, but it’s also true that the Celtics have every right to remember that when deciding whether or not to honor Allen in perpetuity. I think that move has to factor in. Also, Allen spent just five years in Boston.
He was a three-time All-Star here, but that may have been due more to the team’s success than his dominance. He never averaged more than 18.2 points per game, and unlike Garnett and Rondo, who affected games in myriad ways, Allen’s primary value was as a scorer.
MAYBE NOT, BUT HEAR ME OUT
■ Antoine Walker
The biggest knock against Walker is that he didn’t win nearly as much as those who preceded him or followed him, and that’s true. He made just one Eastern Conference finals appearance. But Walker was one of the best players in the NBA during his initial seven-year run with the Celtics, even if he hoisted shots as if the ball were burning his hands.
He made the All-Star team three times, and over nearly eight seasons in Boston, he averaged 20.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists. His 11,386 points place him 13th on the franchise’s all-time list. And of the top 20 scorers in Celtics history, he is the only one whose number is not in the rafters.
SAVE A SPOT OR TWO, JUST IN CASE
There are no current Celtics who are locks to have their numbers retired. And as Pierce pointed out, it is rare to see players stay in one city very long anymore. Isaiah Thomas, the franchise’s all-time leader in scoring average, was on the fast track to Celtics stardom, until he wasn’t.
As history has shown, the surest route to being feted is by winning NBA titles, preferably several. If the Warriors don’t last forever, this team is certainly in position to challenge for championships eventually.
■ Kyrie Irving
Somehow Irving is still just 25 years old. He likely will be an All-Star for years to come. He’s probably the only player on this list who could easily have his number retired if he spends the next 10 seasons in Boston even if he does not win a title.
■ Al Horford
Horford turns 32 in June. He made the All-Star team this year, but likely will need a championship on his résumé to be considered.
■ Gordon Hayward
He has played a total of five minutes as a Celtic, but he is just 27 years old and he is a star.
■ Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown
They’re 19 and 21, respectively, so it seems silly to even mention them here. But just imagine if they spend their entire careers with the Celtics. They could shatter plenty of records.
Perhaps Pierce said it best, though: “You don’t know. You don’t know until it happens. I just thought the only thing you can do is just work as hard as you can for as long as you can, and at the end of the day, you see what happens.”