With reports that Kendrick Perkins might be out until the All-Star break, it’s time to wonder whether Jermaine O’Neal is going to take Perk’s job full-time next season and what that might mean for Boston on both sides of the floor. Not returning until after the All-Star break means missing the first 50 games of the season, and Perk will have to work himself into game shape from there.
How productive Perk will be when the games count is an open question.
So it’s time to start thinking about O’Neal a bit more seriously.
Let’s start with this: The Celtics should be a better offensive team with O’Neal playing heavy minutes.
And that’s a good thing, because the Celtics need to be a better offensive team. They ranked 15th in offensive efficiency last season, a shockingly low number for a team that was a few baskets away from winning the NBA title. They need to do better, and O’Neal should help in that regard.
• Turnovers. The Celtics are essentially trading the most turnover-prone center in the league for the least turnover-prone center in the league.
Among 27 centers who played at least 1,000 minutes last season, only one—Tyson Chandler—turned the ball over on a higher percentage of possessions than Perk, according to Basketball-Reference. Perk turned the ball over on 20.4 percent of possessions on which he was involved with the play that ended the possession, an unacceptable mark for a point guard, let alone a center.
The scary thing? That turnover rate was the lowest of Perk’s career.
O’Neal turned the ball over on just 12.5 percent of his possessions last season. Of those 27 centers mentioned above, only five had a lower turnover rate. (For the curious, those five were: Nenad Krstic, Anthony Tolliver, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Al Horford and Andrew Bogut, who had a better season than most people understand).
Turnovers have been the main flaw in Boston’s offense over the last three seasons. It will be interesting to see how much that changes with Tony Allen gone and Perk out for the bulk of the regular season.
• Free throw shooting. Perk is a career 60 percent shooter from the line; O’Neal is a career 71 percent foul shooter. That makes a difference.
• Offensive diversity. Perk shot 60 percent from the floor last season, the second-best mark in the league, but just about all of his shot attempts came from within 10 feet of the hoop, according to Hoopdata. Perk attempted just 62 shots all season from outside 10 feet, and the enterprise didn’t go very well. He made just 16 of those shots, though he flashed the jumper in the post-season when teams ignored him. He has the potential to develop a workable 15-footer.
O’Neal is already there. He attempted about 60 percent of his shots last season from outside 10 feet, and he made those shots at a career-best rate. For instance: O’Neal made about 44 percent of his shots from between 16 and 23 feet (i.e. long two-pointers), one of the best marks in the league among centers or power forwards, according to Hoopdata. Perspective: KG, one of the very best big man shooters ever, hit 46 percent from that range last season; Ray Allen hit 45 percent.
O’Neal knocked down exactly 40 percent of his shots from that range in both ’08 and ’09, so while 44 percent is his career high, it’s not wildly out of line.
O’Neal also set career highs last season in shooting percentage from between the rim and 10 feet (51 percent) and from between 10 and 15 feet (45 percent). Both of those marks are outstanding for a big guy.
All of this makes O’Neal a much more diverse offensive player than Perkins. We saw during the playoffs that O’Neal has trouble scoring one-on-one against elite post defenders with size, and Perk is likely a better back-down player from 10 feet and in. But O’Neal’s shooting ability and superior hands will give Boston a second pick-and-pop threat on its starting front line and a superior pick-and-roll finisher.
For a team with occasionally serious spacing issues, such a threat can be crucial. Think about how effective those Rugby Scrum plays can be when both screen-setters are legit threats from 18 feet.
Please understand: None of this is meant to denigrate Perk as a player. My Perk Love credentials should be beyond reproach at this point. He’s a better defender than O’Neal, he’s one of the only players on Earth that can guard Dwight Howard without help and he’s worked his ass off to become a very good screen/roll defender. And his offensive game—when he’s healthy and careful with the ball—can be helpful.
But O’Neal could help the C’s spacing in the same way Rasheed Wallace did before the league realized Sheed couldn’t shoot anymore.