Celtics make a big acquisition in O’Neal

Veteran post presence (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / July 9, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The Celtics’ roster looks a lot more secure and imposing than it did a week ago. With limited resources, team president Danny Ainge continues to retool a team that was one solid fourth quarter away from winning a second NBA championship in three years.

Wednesday night, Ray Allen was re-signed. Yesterday morning, Jermaine O’Neal was added to the fold, in the hopes the 14-year veteran can provide some stability, and perimeter shooting, to the Celtics’ depleted frontcourt.

With Rasheed Wallace expected to retire and Kendrick Perkins out until at least February with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament, a free agent focus was finding a productive center.

Ainge said he would not confirm the deals for O’Neal, Allen, or Paul Pierce until the contracts are signed. But a team source said O’Neal will earn the full midlevel exception, set Wednesday at $5.765 million, with an 8 percent increase in the second season.

“I think the priorities to start the [offseason] were obviously Paul, Ray, and address our center position in lieu of Perk’s injury,’’ Ainge said. “Those were our priorities right there. By [today] we’ll have those three things taken care of and we can continue working.’’

O’Neal is only 31, but entered the draft out of high school, taken 17th overall in 1996 by Portland. He played just 211 games in four years with the Trail Blazers, before flourishing following a trade to Indiana.

He averaged at least 19.4 points for six consecutive seasons, before knee problems limited his effectiveness. O’Neal was traded to Toronto in July 2008, and played 41 games there before a trade deadline deal to Miami for Shawn Marion.

Productive but not dominant in Miami, O’Neal enjoyed a solid season but offered Dwyane Wade no help during the first-round playoff loss to the Celtics. He was 9 for 44 from the field, and was replaced for key stretches by Joel Anthony.

The Heat, looking to clear cap space to re-sign Wade and add Chris Bosh and LeBron James, were expected to renounce O’Neal’s rights. Since the Celtics are over the salary cap, they had the option of signing a free agent to the midlevel exception, an option they used with Wallace last year.

The Celtics’ run to the Finals encouraged Ainge to bring back the core of the team.

“I think how the team played in the playoffs was definitely a sign that they have a lot of basketball left in them, both ends of the court,’’ Ainge said. “Through the course of the year we struggled through some injuries, but I was very encouraged by what I saw, how they were moving, how physically they were capable of defending and rebounding. So I would say the overall play of the defense and rebounding showed me how much our guys do have left.’’

Ainge said he will shift his focus to re-signing the Celtics’ own free agents, primarily Nate Robinson and Tony Allen. Both played key roles in the playoffs and neither has garnered much attention in the market because of the pursuit of higher-profile players. Robinson has tweeted in recent days that he would like to return to Boston, while Allen could receive more calls once the free agent frenzy dies down.

“We’ve had conversations with them,’’ Ainge said. “I’ve been working on them. We’re trying to fill a roster in. Once we get this taken care of in the next couple of days, we’ll start working on the next group of guys. We like Nate and Tony and I am sure they are looking at the market, too. It’s pretty crazy right now, so we’ll be patient and look at other options in case they go in another direction, but we do have interest in both of them, always have.’’

Pierce’s return, meanwhile, gave the club some salary cap relief and provided him long-term security.

“I think Paul was 100 percent coming back to Boston,’’ Ainge said. “And he did a lot by restructuring his contract to allow us to bring the rest of the team back, and I don’t think he was ever looking at doing anything other than returning to the Celtics.’’

With Pierce, Allen, and O’Neal in the mix for at least two years, Ainge refused to take a back seat to the new-look Heat, or any other club in the East.

“We’re the Eastern Conference champions and we think we’re going to be better,’’ he said. “I have a great deal of respect for all the top-notch free agents. Whatever happens, I know it’s going to be a challenge and the East is going to be stronger.’’

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