If the Celtics sign Shaquille O’Neal, we will all repeat the same things we said when Shaq was traded to Phoenix and then to Cleveland: This could work if a lot of things go right. Sure, the flaws are obvious. He’ll be 39 before the playoffs start, he hasn’t hedged on a screen/roll in 10 years and he complains publicly about coaches and teammates.
And the not-so-obvious: In what might be a first for Shaq, his team last season performed much better with him on the bench. The difference was most pronounced on the offensive end, where Shaq is supposedly more helpful. The Cavs scored about 4.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Shaq on the floor versus with him on the bench; among Cleveland regulars, only Jawad Williams had a larger negative impact on Cleveland’s offense.
All the numbers are trending the wrong way—Shaq’s free throw attempts per minute and offensive rebounding hit career lows last season, and his turnovers have been creeping up for the last four years.
Still: This could work if a lot of things go right.
Shaq can be an asset for a team that ranked just 15th in points per possession and struggled to produce looks at the rim when Rajon Rondo couldn’t penetrate. Rondo and Paul Pierce are the C’s only real threats to create offense at the basket. When they are on the bench or pushed slightly off their game, Boston’s offense is reduced to a series of off-the-ball screens and side screen/rolls—last-gasp sequences run on the defensive, after the best options have been closed off. Against good defenses, those kinds of possessions ended too often with long, contested jumpers. Watch Game 7 again, if you can stomach it.
Shaq could provide some relief from that. I’m not saying he’s going to be out there beside the starters with 5:00 to go in the 4th quarter of a playoff game. But put him out there with, say, three bench players and Ray Allen? He adds a dimension that wasn’t there last season.
Shaq attempted 5.2 shots per game at the rim in 2010, more than any Celtic save Rondo, and he converted about 67 percent of those looks—well above average for a center. He’d add an offensive rebounding threat to a team that currently has only one (Glen Davis). He might be the only Celtic that could command a double team, and think about how rarely over the last two seasons Boston has been able to do something as easy as tossing the ball into the post and waiting for a double team.
Scoring is hard for the Celtics. Scoring is sometimes easy for Shaq.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t serious questions. Here are a few:
• Who does he play with? This to me is the most important question. Assuming Luke Harangody and Semih Erden spend the important games on the bench or the inactive list, the C’s big man rotation during the playoffs would include: Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis and Shaq.
Shaq can obviously play alongside KG—that’s a natural center/power forward combination. Just as obvious: You can’t pair him with Perkins or Jermaine O’Neal, both of whom are natural centers.
That leaves Glen Davis. So: Can Shaq play alongside Davis? Big Baby works hard, but is he ready to scurry around like KG and quarterback a defensive back line?
A couple of things to note on this point:
1) Davis played played only 109 minutes alongside Perk last season. Doc was reluctant to pair Baby with a bulky, paint-bound center, and with good reason. Line-ups including both Davis and Perk were largely disasters. The one Doc turned to most often was outscored by 33 points in just 47 minutes and allowed 115 points in those 47 minutes, according to Basketball Value.
No other line-up featuring Davis and Perk logged more than 6:30 all of last season. It just wasn’t a set-up Doc trusted.
2) Davis did play heavy minutes as the power forward alongside Rasheed Wallace, who was more comfortable than Perk outside the paint on both ends of the floor. Those line-ups struggled defensively against good teams.
During the regular season, line-ups featuring Sheed/Davis allowed about 104 points per 100 possessions—just a bit above the C’s average. But the two of those line-ups that logged by far the most time (about 130 minutes combined) yielded about 108 points per 100 possessions, a number just below the league’s average.
And sure enough, Sheed/Davis line-ups allowed nearly 109 points per 100 possessions in the post-season, according to Basketball Value.
This is a concern.
Can Shaq play the role of the big man in the C’s base offense? The C’s offense is fairly demanding on its center. Kendrick Perkins sets screens everywhere—all along the baseline for Ray Allen, at the top of the arc for Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce, and just inside the arc as part of the C’s double-screen Rugby Scrum play. Doc Rivers has said over and over how critical Perk’s screens are to the team’s half court offense.
Is Shaq up to that? If he’s not, how does that impact the team’s rotation? Doc might be willing to bend the second-unit offense to Shaq’s skills for six or seven minutes per game, even though the C’s “second unit” almost always includes at least one starter. But adjusting the core offense for Shaq? No way.
Umm, defense? The Celtics win with defense, and that defense is based on precise, maniacal activity from everyone. Big guys jump out on screen rolls and rotate back to their men, all while the other four players on the court rotate in synch. Against star perimeter players, the C’s will do a bunch of things—bring an extra guy over to the strong side, trap the ball-handler, overplay the screen to force the ball-handler in one direction on screen/rolls.
All of this stuff involves quick movements and attention to detail.
And as we all know, Shaq’s defense outside of one-on-one situations in the post (where he’s pretty solid, as Matt Moore points out) has been a punch line for years. His default defense when he’s involved with screen/rolls is to sag back into the paint while the ball-handler’s man scrambles over the pick and tries to catch up. Open mid-range jumpers are there for the taking, and while the C’s don’t really mind you taking mid-range jumpers, they don’t want those jumpers to be uncontested, and they don’t want you to have enough space to at least think about going toward the rim with a head of steam.
There is value in a guy that can block shots and snag defensive rebounds, and Shaq can do both. And it’s worth nothing that Cleveland’s D performed about as well with Shaq on the floor as it did with Shaq on the bench last season.
Still: Is Shaq ready for this? Is he really a better signing, at the minimum, than Lou Amundson? He probably is, considering Shaq’s one main skill—scoring at the rim—meshes with what Boston needs. That skill is worth a minimum contract risk.
Just don’t expect it to put the C’s over the top. It’s not 2001.