- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Considering that the Boston Celtics are facing the prospect of being without their starting center for at least the first three months of the 2010-11 season, there are worse problems to have than deciding which former All-Star should start in his place.
In fact, when Kendrick Perkins crumpled to the floor in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and ending his season (and maybe his team's championship aspirations, as well), the Celtics were forced to lean on an ailing Rasheed Wallace and an overwhelmed Shelden Williams. The Los Angeles Lakers summarily pounced, dominating the glass over the next seven quarters and winning consecutive games to emerge as 2010 NBA champs.
There should be no such issues with depth this year. Boston shored up that frontcourt this summer with the additions of Jermaine O'Neal and Shaquille O'Neal, two players who have combined for 21 All-Star appearances over 32 NBA seasons.
But which of the two O'Neals should start the 2010-11 season as Boston's center? We put that question to our 18-member panel comprised of writers from eight of our favorite Celtics blogs, and the response was an emphatic nod to Jermaine O'Neal.
2010-11 Celtics Summer Forecast: Starting Center
Our panelists offer their thoughts below:
Chris Forsberg, ESPN Boston (Shaquille O'Neal)
On the surface, it's seemingly an easy decision. Jermaine O'Neal came to Boston with expectations of being a temporary starter, signing a two-year deal at the full value of the mid-level exception (a total of more than $12 million), while Shaq listened to coach Doc Rivers stress a limited role before inking a two-year contract at the veteran's minimum (a total of roughly $2.8 million). But often the easiest decisions are not the ones that help a team the most. The Celtics must allow both players to audition for the starting job during the preseason, then make a decision based on best fit. In the end, it's hard to imagine Shaq, with four NBA titles and 15 All-Star appearances on his resume, coming off the bench on opening night against the Miami Heat (though Jermaine O'Neal clearly has history there as well). The Celtics will ultimately decide to mask Shaq's defensive deficiencies by starting him alongside Kevin Garnett, and an accompanying benefit is immediately integrating Jermaine O'Neal into the second-unit role he'll occupy after Perkins returns in the new calendar year.
Brian Robb, CelticsHub (Jermaine O'Neal)
This topic shouldn't even be a debate. The Celtics pride themselves on their defense, and, at this stage of his career, Shaquille O'Neal is a flat-out defensive liability on the perimeter. You don't get to start for the Celtics when Doc Rivers is trying to figure out how to account for your lack of mobility within the team's defensive scheme. On the other hand, Jermaine O'Neal is no world beater, but he can still hold his own on the defensive edge at this stage of his career, and he is a capable shot blocker. Offensively, both guys are upgrades over Perkins, but Jermaine's shooting ability also plays into the Celtics' offensive goal of keeping the floor spread. Put it all together and Jermaine O'Neal is the guy in the middle on opening night.
John Karalis, Red's Army (Jermaine O'Neal)
Jermaine O'Neal. End of story. Done. Done. Done.
The Celtics need Shaq off the bench. That second unit will have some work to do with new players learning new things early on. The C's need someone who, when the excrement hits the spinning blades, can get the ball and do something with it. When all else fails, you can put Shaq against some second-string center and he can at least make a move. If nothing else, he can draw a foul and move the team closer to the penalty. So, whatever free throws he misses early in the quarter will become free throws made for Ray Allen, Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett later on.
Jimmy Toscano, CelticsBlog (Jermaine O'Neal)
The Celtics made two necessary moves this offseason by bringing in J.O. and Shaq. By losing Perk and Sheed, there was clearly a void down in the paint, but that appears to have been addressed. Jermaine O'Neal is your starting center on opening night when the Heat comes to town. Once J.O. signed, the plan was to have him start for this team, and, if Shaq came around later (which he did), it would be in a supporting role. Doc has the ability to use a lot of different lineups with Shaq, J.O., Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis, and Perkins when he returns. The game situation will determine which one of these bigs will play at various times. We saw Perkins start every game he played in last season, but oftentimes it was a different body on the court at game's end.
Tommy King, Celtics Town (Jermaine O'Neal)
Doc Rivers was upfront with Shaq in talks before he signed. He told Shaq that he would most likely have to accept a lesser role, coming off the bench. I don't see Rivers changing his mind before Oct. 26.
Brandon Paul, Gino's Jungle (Shaquille O'Neal)
This is a question I've debated since the Celtics signed Shaq. Thinking in terms of the big picture, I would start Shaquille O'Neal. Unlike Jermaine O'Neal, Shaq is a legit center (just look at his size) who can beat and bang down low with other big bodies. In the event that Perkins does not come back fully healthy, or playing like he did last season, the Celtics will need a legit center in the playoffs to match up with proven bigs like Dwight Howard. Shaq can provide that. In the case that Perkins comes back healthy, Shaq will know the system and be ready to provide quality minutes off the bench, while Jermaine will be able to help relieve KG at the 4 spot.
Nick Gelso, North Station Sports (Shaquille O'Neal)
I feel Shaq starting will not disturb the rotations so much when Perk returns. Perkins will probably have to work himself into game shape, anyway. Though Garnett is considerably older, we did see how long it took him to recover from knee surgery.
Jon Duke, Celtics Stuff Live (Jermaine O'Neal)
Jermaine O'Neal will be the Celtics' starting center to start the 2010-11 season, but Perkins' return will not allow him to keep that spot more than 50 or so games. Shaq will get his minutes, which will make the entire debate unnecessary, but when all the centers are available, the Celtics will have 48 minutes of strong low-post scoring for the first time since the Bird Era.
Tyler Lamoureux, Celtics 24/7 (Jermaine O'Neal)
Without a doubt, Jermaine O'Neal. Picturing the Hall of Fame lineup of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Shaquille O'Neal is nice, but Shaq has too many weaknesses that other teams can exploit. His defense against the pick-and-roll is shaky, while Jermaine O'Neal has no glaring issues on the defensive end. The Big Shamrock will be a huge force down low, but Jermaine's mid-range shot will help the Celtics spread their offense and will keep Rajon Rondo from running into brick walls while driving the lane. Doc Rivers will find a nice balance of when to use both O'Neals. I can see Shaq being a big lift for the second unit while occasionally playing with the starting lineup, depending on in-game situations. One thing I do know is that Dwight Howard should be afraid to match up with this frontline next year in the playoffs.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
3hMichael C. Wright