In my breakdown of the Shaquisition, I mentioned the question of who Shaq could be paired with in the front court. If Perk returns healthy, the C’s post-season big man rotation will probably consist of: Shaq, Perk, KG, Big Baby, Jermaine O’Neal.
Shaq is immobile, and so in an ideal world, you’d pair him with mobile big man who can defend the screen/roll and otherwise cover a lot of ground. KG obviously works, and Perk just as obviously does not. That leaves Big Baby and Jermaine O’Neal, and I expressed doubts that Jermaine O’Neal could realistically play the power forward position on defense against most teams.
A lot of readers disagreed, and so did Chris Forsberg at ESPNBoston.com (to an extent). Here’s what Forsberg wrote in response to a question about the C’s front court rotation:
I actually see potential in an O’Neal-O’Neal frontcourt. Celtics GM Danny Ainge noted that he was eager to utilize Jermaine O’Neal at the 4 this season, and high-mileage legs aside, I don’t see why it can’t work against another team’s second unit. It’s not like they’re going to spend 20 minutes together on the court per game, so if you need to lean on that pairing for a sequence or two each game, I don’t see a problem.
In the end, I really like the flexibility O’Neal’s addition offers Boston. Although without ideal sets all the time, Boston can easily trot out a reserve-laden big lineup like O’Neal-O’Neal-Luke Harangody-Marquis Daniels-Rajon Rondo or go small with something like Jermaine O’Neal-Glen Davis-Daniels-Nate Robinson-Rondo. Go ahead and mix and match starters in those units. Again, it’s not something you trot out there every day, but it offers greater flexibility than was available last season.
• The regular season is one thing. I’m generally unconcerned with the 2011 regular season. The Celtics will win the Atlantic Division, probably secure the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference and dole out chunks of February and March playing time to Luke Harangody and Semih Erden. Forsberg is absolutely right that the regular season matters in that Boston must remain healthy and keep their vets well-rested, all while establishing a team-wide rhythm on both sides of the floor—the foundation for the playoffs.
In that sense, Rivers absolutely can experiment with all sorts of different front court combos—including O’Neal/O’Neal—for short stretches here and there.
But if the C’s end the regular season the way they want, the front line rotation will consist of those five guys listed above. And that’s when the concern about pairing up Shaq comes in.
Readers who suggested Jermaine O’Neal had played the power forward spot before were absolutely correct. In 2007, for instance, he played nearly as much at the four spot as at the five, according to 82games. During that season, J.O. logged 25 percent of Indiana’s total available power forward minutes. That’s a lot.
In the three seasons since then? He’s barely sniffed the power forward spot. In each of those three seasons, O’Neal logged less than 1 percent of his club’s minutes at the power forward spot, according to 82games. (See here, here, here and here). O’Neal played for three different teams and four different coaches during that span, so it’s not as if he got stuck with one stubborn coach who didn’t think he could play the four.
You can chalk some of this up to personnel. J.O. wasn’t going to log a lot of time at the four in Toronto with Chris Bosh around. Troy Murphy logged about 40 percent of the power forward minutes in Indiana in 2008. Michael Beasley and Udonis Haslem hogged the power forward minutes in Miami, where Joel Anthony was the only real alternative at center.
So perhaps personnel explains why O’Neal has played virtually no power forward since 2007. But the fact remains that he hasn’t, and I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect a 32-year-old with creaky legs to suddenly start playing key minutes at the four when he hasn’t done so since 2007. Especially when you consider the power forwards on elite Eastern Conference teams, a group that includes Rashard Lewis, Chris Bosh and Josh Smith.
But this is the fun of basketball. We all get to watch and see what happens.