Commentary

Not sold on Shaquille O'Neal

What can the Celtics expect from the big man? Probably the veteran minimum

Updated: August 6, 2010, 5:16 PM ET
By Peter May | ESPNBoston.com

This is going to be verrry interesting.

Shaquille O'Neal has devoured a rather large slice of humble pie and is joining the Boston Celtics for the -- ahem -- veteran's minimum of around $1.4 million. Thus, when the 2010-11 season begins, Shaq will make less money than just about every other Celtics veteran, with the exception of Von Wafer.

It has never been this way for Shaq, who throughout his career has been, well, mostly all about Shaq. And all about the money. Yes, he has had supporting roles since leaving the Los Angeles Lakers (some might say that was the case even in his final days as a Laker), but there always was the accompanying, rather-large paycheck that verified his importance and value. That always was important to Shaq. (He is not alone there.) Now, after seeing no team step up for anything more than the $1.4 million he can make due to his many years of service, the question remains: Can he still be effective, happy, productive and a non-distraction with the relative paltry money he will make?

[+] EnlargeShaq
Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesThe Cavs played as well, or better, without O'Neal last season.

If you are the Celtics, the easy answer is: Who cares? If Shaq does buy into the program, then fine. If he doesn't, the team can cut him at a minimal cost and investment.

It's all on the Big Minimum.

There's no doubt that Shaq said all the right things in his pre-signing conversations with Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge. At the age of 38, and with skills clearly diminishing, he should enthusiastically welcome a role of 15 to 20 minutes a game. But what does it say about the man who none of the teams that most recently employed him had any interest whatsoever in retaining his services, including a couple of teams that could have used a guy like him?

None of his last four employment stops ended well. The Lakers traded him after owner Jerry Buss refused to offer him the contract extension O'Neal thought he deserved. The Heat stepped up and, in his second year in Miami, O'Neal helped them to their first NBA title. But he was soon gone to Phoenix, where the Suns hoped he would liven up a locker room grown sullen due to Shawn Marion's frequent lamentations. The Suns went the other way and didn't even make the playoffs in 2008-09, Shaq's last season there. Steve Nash didn't want to play with Shaq any longer, and thus came the trade to Cleveland. We all saw what happened there. The Cavs played as well, or better, without O'Neal, even though he put up more than passable numbers.

But when it came time to consider re-signing O'Neal, the Cavs declined, despite also losing Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The Cavs' top center at the moment: Ryan Hollins.

It was suggested that O'Neal might end up in Miami, but that was never going to happen even though the Heat still have no real inside presence. So the Celtics presented the best opportunity for him to finish his career on an upswing. It is a strong, veteran-dominated locker room, one into which O'Neal should fit quite well. He knows what is expected of him and so do his teammates.

Due to his large size and attendant personality, the signing drew the predictable reaction: "SHAQ" is coming to Boston! But it's really "shaq" is coming to Boston, which takes awhile to fathom. His personality dwarfs his game and has for awhile. (As if to underscore that, Shaq was on the list of "hot topics" on the Boston Globe's website, right next to Chelsea Clinton's wedding.)

He is probably a second-string center right now and might be a third-stringer when Kendrick Perkins returns. It is going to be an adjustment for him, no matter what he says in public. He has never been asked to play such a cameo (by his standards) or been paid accordingly. The fact that this day didn't come until he turned 38 speaks volumes about his appeal and the NBA.

The basketball issues are no secret. Shaq has a pretty definable body of work. The Celtics know what they are getting, providing he stays injury-free and does not embrace the Rasheed Wallace Workout regimen. He can be a presence in the low block on offense. He can rebound. He can't make free throws, which means he won't be on the floor at the end of games. He does not defend the pick-and-roll, which so many teams use these days. If we see Shaq "blitzing" the pick-and-roll (stepping out to stop the dribbler) then we'll know he is serious.

He's a big insurance policy right now, and that's OK. For the Celtics, there really is no downside. If he plays, fine. If not, there's always the UFC.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

EDITORS' PICKS