Wednesday August 4th, 2010

BOSTON -- For the last 36 hours, the local airwaves have been buzzing over the news that Shaquille O'Neal was about to become the latest veteran to sign with the Celtics.

For the most part, opinions have been mixed about the two-year deal worth nearly $3 million. Some view O'Neal as the ideal candidate to bridge the gap between the start of the regular season and the All-Star break, when center Kendrick Perkins hopes to return from offseason knee surgery. Others wonder if O'Neal, 38, has anything left in the tank after playing 41,155 minutes and 2½ seasons' worth of playoff games in 18 years.

Multiple NBA officials, however, hold the same opinion about the deal: No, no, hell no. Interviews with seven league coaches and scouts often echoed each other: O'Neal's pick-and-roll defense will hamstring Boston's team concepts; his immobility will create a human roadblock for Rajon Rondo in the paint; and his ego won't allow him to accept a reduced role on a contending team.

The arguments have merit. Defense is the biggest concern. O'Neal is still a solid low-post defender who won't need much help when the premier Eastern Conference big men (Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut) catch the ball in the paint. But he is one of the worst pick-and-roll defenders in the NBA and is being asked to replace one of the best (Perkins) and help Boston get by two teams (Miami, Orlando) that will run it on a regular basis. When O'Neal is on the floor, the Celtics will effectively have to scrap the system that allowed the lowest field goal percentage in two of the last three seasons.

Offensively, Rondo will face challenges. In Phoenix, O'Neal was routinely criticized for stifling the Suns' offense by creating another barrier to the basket for Steve Nash. Boston's offense isn't as free-flowing, but Rondo is at his best when the lane is clear, as it often has been with the more mobile Perkins and Kevin Garnett stationing themselves on the perimeter and working for angles in the paint. O'Neal, however, rarely ventures more than a few feet from the rim, which will force Rondo to adapt to the 7-foot-1, 325-pound center's presence.

O'Neal's attitude is a big question, too. Joining the Celtics wasn't his best option; it was his only one. Sources said the Hawks, leery of O'Neal's influence in a locker room filled with twentysomethings, were never close to making a firm offer. Nor were the Spurs, Heat and Clippers, three teams O'Neal's camp actively courted over the last few weeks.

The reason: Few believe O'Neal is actually willing to accept a reserve role. Sources familiar with O'Neal's former teams said that if O'Neal isn't happy with his role he will divide the locker room, pulling easily influenced players into his clique. Unselfishness has been a critical part of Boston's recent success -- how many times have we heard the word "ubuntu" in the last three years? -- and any internal strife caused by O'Neal could damage team chemistry.

Still, there are reasons to believe signing O'Neal could work out. He instantly becomes one of the Celtics' best rebounders (he averaged 6.7 in only 23.4 minutes last season), a space-clearing monster who should help Boston -- the NBA's second-worst rebounding team last season -- control the defensive glass.

Offensively, O'Neal is still a viable option in the post. Gone are the days where he can put up 25 points regularly. But O'Neal is an economical scorer (12.0 points on 56.6 percent shooting last season) who, before injuring his thumb in late February, had averaged 15.9 points over a 14-game span. And while his hulking presence won't help Rondo, his size underneath should help clean up many of the point guard's mistakes.

Most important, Boston needs Shaq. There are no guarantees Perkins will be anything more than a shell of his former self when he returns, and Garnett and newly signed Jermaine O'Neal have struggled with knee and other injuries in recent seasons. O'Neal's presence will allow Doc Rivers to keep Garnett's minutes down (a successful strategy the Celtics' coach implemented in the second half last year) and develop a diverse center rotation.

Figuring out how to work O'Neal into the defense won't be easy (that's new assistant coach Lawrence Frank's job), and it will be up to Rivers and Boston's veterans to prevent any discord inside the locker room. But with Miami loading up and Orlando looking strong, the Celtics needed to do something to keep pace. O'Neal is a risk, but one Boston won't regret.

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