It’s an all too familiar scenario for the Celtics brass in the past three years. You sign an aging but still imposing big man to a multi-year deal for the mid-level exception. You believe he still has enough miles left on the tires to be a productive contributor for you. Said free agent comes to Boston for the allure of an elusive title at a little bit less than market value.
The regular season comes and goes for said player with more than a few bumps in the road to put it kindly. When push comes to shove during the postseason however, the seasoned big pulls through and gives you everything the team could have reasonably expected out of them.
Then the team’s elimination follows with whispers of retirement, despite only being one year into the multi-year deal.
This storyline rang true with Rasheed Wallace in 2010, and it could just as easily occur with Jermaine O’Neal in 2011. And make no mistake, the decision will be the first, and perhaps the most important domino to fall in this Celtic offseason, if they hope to remain competitive for a championship during next year.
Why does this team need O’Neal to return next season? A guy who only managed to play a career low 24 regular season games and is due a cool 6.2 million dollars next year. To put it bluntly, the C’s don’t have the means or the cap flexibility (future CBA chances notwithstanding) to replace him, and also make the other necessary upgrades to the team’s bench to improve the offense.
With over 58 million dollars committed to just five members of the roster already (not including J.O.) for the 2011-12 season, Danny Ainge’s back is already against the wall as far as flexibility is concerned.
If O’Neal returns, that number jumps up to 64.2 million, but essentially will have no effect on how much money the team has to spend this offseason. The only money Ainge has to spend as things stand right now with the current CBA:
Mid-Level Exception: Roughly 5-6 million
Bi-Annual Exception: Around 2 million
Veteran’s Minimum Contracts
For a team that needs to fill potentially fill up to 10 spots on its roster, that’s not a lot of cash to make the sufficient changes this team needs. Get bigger and more athletic upfront. Improve the offense. Reduce minutes for the Big Three. There’s a lot that has to be done.
Boston has bird rights on Big Baby, Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, meaning they don’t have to spend the above pool of money specifically on those guys. Even if all of those three are re-signed, (possible but not probable) it still leaves plenty of holes. Delonte West needs to get paid (he will make more than veteran’s minimum next year) and the team still has to address the offense and athleticism.
Without O’Neal in the picture however, the options still remain the same. It just adds another major hole to fill in the middle. It also gives the C’s free agents a bit of leverage in negotiating their deals, knowing the team’s situation I just described above.
If Boston wants to remain a contender and J.O. doesn’t come back, short of making a blockbuster deal Ainge is going to need to bring nearly everyone in the rotation. The agents will know this and try to squeeze every possible dollar out of Ainge. If O’Neal is back however, the C’s can probably let one of those free agents walk and still manage to get by.
As a sidebar, It’s interesting and perhaps a bit disappointing to see how the impact of Sheed’s retirement still has a chain effect on this team throughout the past season all the way to this very day and specific situation.
After the team failed to spend mid-level exception money in 2008-09, they went out and signed Wallace to a three-year deal for the entire MLE, with the hope the signing would address the team’s backup big problem for until the contract expired in 2013.
Once Wallace retired however in July 2010, it dealt the team the same situation it potentially faces now with J.O.
With Boston over the cap before last year even with Wallace having been bought out, it took the possibility away from Ainge to spend its MLE money last summer on other holes in the roster, such as a swingman to take the burden off of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
Instead, the C’s had to pool its resources to sign another quality big, who turned out to be J.O. with the MLE, with the need at the position magnified even further with the ACL injury to Kendrick Perkins during last year’s finals.
Almost the same exact predicament will stare Ainge straight in the face if J.O. decides to hang them up this summer. It’s a scenario I wouldn’t envy to face for one more year.
So what can be done here to convince O’Neal to come back for one last run? Probably little else, besides drawing on his desire for a title.
J.O. has made nearly 160 million dollars over the course of his career, so the 6 plus million dollars he has waiting for him next season will most likely not be a factor. Instead, it will be his family and body undoubtedly which will have the deciding votes. Here’s O’Neal after Game 5 in Miami:
“I have a little boy that’s a sponge right now and he’s looking for more and more time from me and sometimes you can’t — your body tends to tell you what time it is. And again, I missed so much of this year, it would be inappropriate for me to even make a decision now, [because it'd be] an emotional decision. So I’m going to take a couple days off and stay on the program with the strength and conditioning guy and stick around Boston for another month, and then gauge it after the month is over, see where the collective bargaining is going.”
You have to sympathize with O’Neal here. The 32-year-old has played nearly 1,000 games and over 27,000 minutes in his 14-year NBA career. He’s had countless knee surgeries, and barely saw the floor during this regular season.
Despite the early turmoil, he came back to average 21.9 minutes this past postseason, to go with 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds a game. He posted those numbers despite the fact he gutted out nearly the entire postseason with a fractured left wrist, which clearly affected his rebounding and scoring.
Nonetheless, the guy held his own out there, kept the team as strong defensively as ever, and arguably won Game 1 of the Knicks series all by himself with his stellar play on both ends (12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 blocks).
A quick look at the free agent market finds very few players capable of bringing that kind of production. And the one’s that do, well it’s unlikely Boston has enough money to bring them in. Here’s a realistic list of free agent bigs Ainge could bring in for some/all of the mid-level:
Yao Ming (doubtful)
Spencer Hawes (restricted)
DeAndre Jordan (restricted)
Ryan Hollins (player option)
Miami’s aging ineffective center trio
And those are some of the better names. How much better does JO and Krstic sound to you after seeing that list? Jordan is the name I’ve heard a lot about, but it’s unlikely the Clippers don’t match any reasonable offer he gets. I wouldn’t mind Mohammed or Thomas but anyone else playing meaningful minutes in a postseason run. Thanks, but no thanks.
Given all this, all we can do right now is hope. Hope Doc Rivers is resting up his voice well enough right now to do a good sell job on J.O. to come back for one last run. Hope the rest of the veterans are on his case to make a final stand, knowing the sad truth that the team’s chances next year are effected in no small way by his decision.