Danny Ainge, after watching his personally put together Celtics get out-rebounded by the Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals 53-40 (23-8 on the offensive boards), went on the free agent market looking for size. After signing Turkish rookie Semih Erden and using the mid-level on veteran Jermaine O’Neal, Ainge went out and got the biggest player still playing in the NBA, Shaquille O’Neal.
The four-time NBA champion is coming off a strange two and a half years, he was traded from Miami to Phoenix during the 07-08 season and rejuvenated himself the next year, putting up 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in the desert. Shaq quickly worked his way out of that situation to play with LeBron in Cleveland, and Celtic fans know how that story ended.
The best case for signing the Big Diesel? Probably the fact that the Celtics are only paying him the veteran minimum, or to put it another way, the same amount of money Shelden Williams made last year.
In reality, it’s hard to judge exactly how much O’Neal will be able to give the Celtics on the court. Kendrick Perkins will be out until at least mid-season, so the two O’Neals will get an opportunity to show what they have left in the tank. But Shaq has a history of working his way into shape each season, a-la Rasheed Wallace last season.
Shaq’s averages with Cleveland last year were respectable (12 pts, 6.7 rbs in 23 mpg) and he had a decent showing against his new team in the playoffs (13.8 pts, 5 rbs in 23.5 mpg in the six games vs. Boston). He’s never shot below 55% from the field in a season and he actually shot better from the free-throw line in the playoffs (66%) than Rajon Rondo (59%). Not that that’s something to be proud of, it’s still going to be tough to have him on the floor at the end of close games.
Another asset the NBA’s “Original Superman” brings (take that Dwight Howard) is the toughness to take a hard foul or knock an opponent down. After losing Leon Powe a year ago, the Celtics have been relying on Perkins and occasionally Kevin Garnett or Sheed to play the role of enforcer. With Perk out at the beginning of the season, it’ll be nice to have someone else on the court to protect the basket and the rest of the players.
For those who think he will be part of some locker room drama, try to remember a time last season when you heard anything negative from him? There were no stories of him and LeBron having trouble co-existing and he played no role in the blame game after the Cavaliers disappointed again in the playoffs.
Shaq’s too grown for drama at this point of his career. No need for the beef he had with Penny or Kobe. Although tying Kobe by winning a 5th ring or passing him with a 6th ring might be enough to bring it back. And seeing Wade across the court from him in meaningful games will certainly be nostalgic for the 2006 NBA champs.
The one positive aspect about Shaq’s recent locker room locations is that he might help the Celtics by giving teammates some extra insight on defending or getting into the heads of LeBron or D-Wade after bunking next to each of the two in previous seasons. Any competitive advantage on the Heat is going to be welcome considering they are now the Celtics’ top competitor to come out of the East.
So now Shaquille will join the other two seven foot free agent signings, along with KG, Glen Davis, and eventually Perkins, to form one of the biggest, nastiest front lines in recent NBA history. It will be one of the deepest frontcourts in the league next season and that’s not even factoring in Rasheed Wallace, who is still a possibility, although all signs point to him retiring and the Celtics using his contract in a trade before he officially does so. But with the new Celtic already publicly calling for him to stay with the team, Sheed’s plans for next season could turn in a Brett Favre type situation.
Whatever Shaq’s nickname in Boston becomes, whether it’s “The Big Shamrock”, “The Big Green”, or “The Big Leprechaun”, just remember the key word for Ainge, Doc Rivers and the Celtics is “big.”