- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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One of the primary reasons the Celtics fell short of their ultimate goal a month ago was that the Lakers beat them up on the glass during the NBA Finals, particularly in Game 7, when second-chance opportunities might have cost Boston an 18th title.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has noted a number of times this offseason that the team would like to add a big man to solidify a front line that will start the season without Kendrick Perkins (ACL surgery). It would seem the Green would benefit from a big whose focus is largely on rebounding.
Now the sobering reality: Of the top 25 free-agent rebounders (unrestricted and restricted) from last season (based on rebounds per game), only three remain on the market: Earl Barron, Shaquille O'Neal and Anthony Tolliver.
Daydreams of Shaq in green started last week when Ainge said the Celtics had conversations with him. But Ainge also stressed that with the addition of Jermaine O'Neal, any Shaq deal was "very unlikely."
Bringing in Shaq just doesn't make a lot of sense on the surface. Although Jermaine O'Neal played good soldier at his introduction and stressed that he has no problem slipping into a reserve role once Perkins returns to the starting lineup, it's hard to imagine a pair of veteran O'Neals being content to play backup roles (even if Boston can offer quality bench minutes to any big given the limited minutes that both Perkins and Kevin Garnett log).
Most importantly, remember that Shaq will turn 39 (thirty-nine!) before the 2011 playoffs. History simply isn't on the side of a player that age. The flip side, of course, is that O'Neal did have a decent postseason (11.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in 22.1 minutes per game in 11 appearances for the Cavaliers) and was still an imposing force in the middle of the floor.
Certainly no player would have more of a big-splash impact than Shaq, and there's a perception that Miami -- quickly anointed the (three) Kings of the East -- is weak up front and would be susceptible to any team with a fearsome front line.
Tolliver and Barron are lower-cost options who enjoyed strong finishes to the 2009-10 season after working their way back to the league from the D-League, but they are unproven over long stretches. It's unclear whether either would play for the minimum (Barron reportedly turned down a minimum offer from the Knicks to explore the market more), but as free agency winds down, it will be interesting to see what they seek from a team (a chance to win or playing time).
Tolliver appeared in 46 games for Golden State last season, averaging 11.7 points and 7 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. With increased playing time late in the season, he averaged 18.4 points and 11 rebounds in 41.2 minutes during the final five games of the regular season. That uptick in playing time could leave him yearning for a bigger role elsewhere.
Barron signed a 10-day contract with the Knicks in April and averaged 11.7 points and 11 rebounds per game in seven appearances (six starts). The Celtics should be mighty familiar after the 28-year-old posted 17 points and 18 rebounds in 44 minutes in New York's 104-101 triumph over Boston on April 6.
But maybe the fact that Tolliver and Barron are two of the more noteworthy names on the free-agent heap speaks to Paul Pierce's suggestion that there's only "slim pickings" remaining.
Dig deeper into the free-agent pile and you'll find familiar names like Josh Boone, Kurt Thomas and even old friend Theo Ratliff (who played two forgettable games for Boston in 2006-07). Craig Smith, a Boston College product, remains a free agent as well.
The Celtics also can examine the trade market with Rasheed Wallace's contract, should the 15th-year veteran plan to follow through on his intentions to retire, possibly seeking out a team drifting over the luxury tax with its offseason moves. (We're looking at you, Houston Rockets.)
But Boston must figure out (1) whether Wallace is certain to retire, which still remains a little hazy, and (2) whether the Celtics prefer to seek a backup wing over a big man on the trade market, because that area might be of greater need at this point (and that position might be even slimmer pickings through free agency).
If all else fails, there's always the potential to bring back Wallace. Both Jermaine O'Neal and Pierce suggested last week that they plan to lobby Wallace for a return, maybe identifying that he's the best available big man, and the Celtics already have him locked up.
Trouble is, Wallace averaged only three rebounds per game in the postseason, even below the 4.1 he averaged during the regular season.
The Celtics were a good team on the glass at times during the regular season but got exposed by the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Boston won only the games in which it finished on top in the battle of the boards, and in Games 6 and 7 was dominated on the glass. The Lakers had a lopsided 105-79 edge in the final two games, topping 50 boards in each game.
The Celtics must find a way to improve on the glass against teams with size if they want another crack at Banner No. 18. That makes you wonder whether they'll have to take a longer look at Shaq. It doesn't make a lot of sense on the surface, but if they can sell him on a nonstarting role in Boston, it makes a lot of sense on the glass.
Plus, just imagine what the addition of Shaq could do for a potential Celtics-Lakers rubber match.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Maybe Shaquille O'Neal makes sense for the Celtics after all.