Why Shaq works better as a starter
Shaquille O'Neal is coming to Boston with the understanding that he must accept a reserve role with the Celtics. But you can't help but wonder if it makes more sense to plug The Big Shamrock into the starting lineup to open the season.
(Insert audible groan)
Yes, we're aware of all the reasons it shouldn't work. But here's one Shaq-sized reason it would: More floor time with Kevin Garnett and a starting unit that can mask the defensive deficiencies in O'Neal's game.
Let's remember, too, that this is really only an issue for maybe 45 games, at which point you hope that Kendrick Perkins has recovered enough from offseason ACL surgery to rejoin the starting lineup.
But at the start of the 2010-11 season, we can't shake the notion that it makes more sense to start games with Shaq and allow Jermaine O'Neal to come off the bench. Here's why ...
Shaq can easily fill Perkins' role. Last season, Perkins averaged 27.6 minutes per game. Yes, that's a bit on the high side for a 38-year-old center, but you can easily bring that number down by riding Jermaine O'Neal and Glen Davis for longer stretches off the pine. Plus, Shaq -- much like Perkins -- is unlikely to be on the floor late in games, when his free throw shooting is a liability.
By starting the game alongside Garnett, you have your most favorable defensive pairing, where Shaq's inability to defend the pick-and-roll is somewhat negated by having the team's best defenders on the floor to help out. Conversely, this also allows you to lean on a second-team lineup that features Jermaine O'Neal and Davis as a tandem and avoids potentially cumbersome pairings with Shaq.
Offensively, there's concern about whether O'Neal can set the type of screens that Perkins has often been lauded for by coach Doc Rivers. While Perkins' tireless efforts to free his teammates often go unnoticed (by everyone except NBA referees), it would seem that Shaq could easily use his gargantuan frame to do much of the same if schooled on the basics of Boston's offense in the preseason.
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While the stats suggest Cleveland's offense produced better with O'Neal off the court last season, you have to like the idea of O'Neal's presence around the basket with Boston's first unit on both ends of the floor.
Shaq's ability to rebound -- a Boston weakness exposed in the NBA Finals -- could facilitate a run-happy offense by fueling Rajon Rondo via the outlet pass. Shaq can't clog up the offense if Boston's already on the move. And when Boston does get stuck in a halfcourt set, O'Neal provides something the team desperately lacked in recent seasons: Someone who can finish around the rim.
Perkins started the 2009-10 season strong but likely hindered by knee tendinitis, and he regressed to what Rivers dubbed "gatherer" mode, where he dipped down before going up for a shot around the basket, often times allowing a defender time to recover and block his shot.
You'll have no such problems with Shaq. Unless the opposing team is willing to give a foul -- and sometimes even that doesn't help -- O'Neal is going to score with ease with space around the basket. What's more, Shaq can clean up those often-spoiled Rondo lobs better than anyone else on this roster.
Our friend Zach Lowe at CelticsHub cobbled together some strong thoughts about Shaq, voicing his concerns about how he'll integrate in Boston. One of the positives he pointed out is that O'Neal attempted 5.2 shots per game at the rim last season -- much more than Perkins (3.9), Garnett (3.0), Davis (2.5) or Rasheed Wallace (1.3) -- giving Boston a true post presence for the first time in the Big Three era.
That lack of a post presence has hindered Boston in getting opposing teams into foul trouble. Twice during last year's postseason we saw teams go entire quarters without a defensive infraction (an entire quarter!?). That won't happen with enough tosses to Shaq. He'll drive fans nuts with his free throw woes, but those fouls should help boost Boston's offense overall as others will get to the line more frequently because of it.
So the Celtics should consider playing Shaq the first six minutes of each half with the starters, then maybe utilize him in small bursts with the reserves. For much the same reasons he can help the first-team offense, Shaq has potential to aid the second team. Marquis Daniels is one of the best cutters in the league and there's potential for those two to flourish together against second-team defenses, particularly ones forced to stay at home on the perimeter to guard against the long-range shooting of Nate Robinson and Von Wafer.
Starting Shaq also allows the team to start the season with Jermaine O'Neal in the role of first big off the bench, the same role he'll occupy once Perkins returns, allowing him to gain greater familiarity with the second unit he'll log hefty time with late in the season.
For a second unit that really didn't find its chemistry until the postseason, it might be a good situation to develop that chemistry early on, then worry about integrating Shaq once Perkins returns.
Even with Shaq as a starter, you can still devote more minutes to Jermaine O'Neal and Davis. Wallace logged 22.6 minutes per game last season as the team's first bench big, while Davis should expect an uptick after averaging 17.3 minutes per game. Limit Shaq to, say, 20 minutes per game and you still have upwards of 48 minutes to split among the reserves.
Even Shelden Williams logged 11.1 minutes per game (certainly frontloaded by Davis' absence to start the 2009-10 season), but it proves there are minutes to go around, particularly with Perkins sidelined at the start.
The question becomes whether Boston promised that starting role to Jermaine O'Neal while signing him to the midlevel exception at the start of the free-agent period. He uttered the company line about being fine with a reserve role once Perkins returned, but it's unclear how he'd feel about being a bench player from the get-go.
But the Celtics shouldn't make decisions based on what was promised in early July. The ultimate goal is to win in mid-June. Boston needs to use training camp, the preseason and maybe even the regular season to find where the new faces mesh best in this lineup, asserting that all decisions will be made in the interest of putting the team in the best position to win.
Both O'Neals need to remember that they'll likely both be reserves by season's end. And as sports has taught us all along, it's not where you start, it's where you finish.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.