Here is what seven years of professional basketball can do to you.
"Tell you the truth," says Paul Pierce, "I don't think I've seen the worst of my adversity in this game. I think all great players have to go through it. And I think I'm one of the great players, when it's all said and done."
Yes, he is. Or, at least, he can be. He is the best player the Celtics have to offer, but he wasn't anywhere near as good last season as he could have been. Stung by the dismantling of a team that was good enough to win 49 games and reach the Eastern Conference finals the year before, Pierce wandered through a season in which he set career lows in overall shooting and 3-point percentage while putting up a career high in turnovers. It was not an easy season, and it left him, if not downright hostile or suspicious, a bit wary about both the present and the future.
It's a new season tonight. The 76ers are in town to provide the opposition, and Pierce is being a trouper and saying the kinds of things a good fan would like to hear.
"I think we've improved the talent level."
"I definitely think we're a playoff team."
"You're going to see an exciting brand of basketball. We'll get up and down the court."
"We could win our division. I don't see any clear-cut winner."
"I think it's going to be a little bit easier on me this year."
Sounds good. He might even believe some of it.
But this is a guy who will be playing for his fourth coach in less than four full seasons, and who, rather than expressing confidence, exudes more confusion and curiosity about what will happen this year.
It's pretty evident that what Pierce yearns for at this point in his career is team stability.
"It's good to have a bunch of guys who are going to be here for at least a couple of months," he says. "It's a chance to get a fresh start."
Pierce's once-secure little Celtic world received three jolts in 2003-04. The first was the Antoine Walker deal, which happened just before the start of the season. The second was the December trade with Cleveland, in which Eric Williams, Tony Battie, and Kedrick Brown departed. The third was the sudden resignation of coach Jim O'Brien, who, as fate would have it, will be here to coach the 76ers this evening.
"It was everything that went down," Pierce explains. "We wound up trading away seven or eight guys. I was kind of wondering in what direction the team was going."
Left alone as a major offensive force, he did not fare well. Too many nights became flat-out heave-a-ramas. Complicating matters was the fact that he had to be the team spokesman. Being affable and intelligent doesn't mean someone is cut out to be a vocal leader.
Doc Rivers saw enough of Pierce when things were going well to recognize the decline in his play. If his team is to go anywhere this season, Doc needs the Paul Pierce of two or three years ago to make a return appearance.
"He is our key guy," Doc confirms. "But I don't want him to be burdened by feeling he has to lead by doing anything unnatural."
For better or worse, Gary Payton is here now, and it will be fascinating to see how that works out. For Payton is not one who keeps his opinions to himself. Pierce no longer will be the prime spokesman on team matters.
"Gary will help Paul out," predicts Rivers. "Gary is a leader. He cannot be anything else."
Pierce shot 29.9 percent from the 3-point line last year and 40.2 percent from the floor. To Rivers, those figures simply cannot represent the real Paul Pierce. Doc chooses to view them as aberrational figures.
After viewing enough game tapes from the 2003-04 season, the new mentor arrived at a simple conclusion. "Paul shot 40 percent from the floor because he did not take good shots," reports Rivers. "Last year, he felt he had to take over games and he took a lot of bad shots. He is doing a much better job now of understanding where his good shots are. And when he doesn't shoot, he is moving the ball and trusting his teammates that he'll get it back in a better place to score."
The hope is that people such as Payton, Ricky Davis, Raef LaFrentz, and Tom Gugliotta will provide the kind of auxiliary offense that will enable Pierce to do that "trusting" his coach is referring to. A secondary hope is that the Celtics really will be able to implement the kind of running game Rivers has been speaking about. If the Celtics ever did learn how to run, Pierce would flourish, because he is a devastating finisher.
Remember whom we're talking about. We are talking about a 6-foot-6-inch inside-outside scoring threat who can hit threes and is one of the great old-fashioned drivers left in basketball. He annually finishes among the league leaders in free throws attempted. He can put points up in a major hurry.
At 27, he is in his physical prime. But he has been scarred. First of all, he was almost killed during that horrible stabbing. Let's never forget that. Then he was somehow made out to be a bad guy when the United States team finished sixth at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis. I was there, and all I can say is that without him, the team would have lost one additional game, possibly two. Finally, there were the tumultuous events of last season.
He retains his immense talent, but he needs to regain his old verve. He is far too young to become the battle-weary veteran. And what's this business about not having seen the worst yet?
Paul Pierce is absolutely right about one thing. He is a great player, but he is a great player who needs to get his mind clear. No one that young and that gifted should feel so oppressed.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.