The ultimate question, of course, concerns whether Shaquille O’Neal can actually, you know, play. Shaq is old. Shaq is slow. And at this stage of his career, one must wonder, too, whether Shaq is truly motivated.
In the interim, the Celtics got a little more entertaining, which might not be bad thing for an organization that might be entering – dare we say it – a bridge year.
So as O’Neal is introduced to Boston today during a press conference, remember a couple of things. First, O’Neal is costing the Celtics next to nothing. Second, the Celtics have an obvious need for a big man. If and when the Shaquille O’Neal experiment proves to be a failure – and it very well might – the Celtics can cut bait at no real cost, which means the team has virtually all of the leverage here.
What Shaq makes of this is entirely up to him.
Which, again, is part of the problem.
Let’s start with the negatives. Asked about the potential boost in entertainment value that comes from having a player like O’Neal on the roster, Celtics president Rich Gotham told WBZ-FM 98.5 The Sports Hub that any such benefit would be a "byproduct" of the O’Neal acquisition. The Celtics are interested in the basketball first. Let’s hope Gotham is telling the truth. If the Celtics signed O’Neal to be purely a sideshow, it’s a sign that they, too, recognize a championship to be a long shot, which means the Celtics are as interested in using O’Neal as he is them.
At this stage of his career, after all, Shaq is a caricature of himself. By remaining an active player in the NBA, he can more effectively promote his reality television show, "Shaq Vs." In the first season of said spectacle, O’Neal challenged an NFL player to a football skills contest – Shaq vs. Ben Roethlisberger – and swam against a historic Olympic performer – Shaq vs. Michael Phelps.
For the sake of the Celtics, let’s hope we never deteriorate into Shaq vs. Rasheed Wallace. If that happens, the competition will be obvious.
Who was a bigger bust for the Celtics?
Now the positives. Shaq is a mountain of a man who might still have something to offer on the basketball court, assuming he shows up in shape and relatively motivated. At the very least, he can help them on the defensive glass. So long as he doesn’t completely bog down the offense, he can give them some presence in the offensive low post. If Shaq is willing to move his feet – at least some – on both ends of the floor, he could be a valuable addition to a Celtics team that needs minutes in the middle during the absence of injured center Kendrick Perkins.
For example, against a team like, say, the Lakers, Shaq certainly could be a far greater deterrent to someone like Andrew Bynum than the Celtics had during the recently completed NBA Finals. Against more athletic big men, Celtics coach Doc Rivers could instead opt for former Miami Heat big man Jermaine O’Neal. (Miami was one of the best teams in the NBA last season at defending Orlando's Dwight Howard.) Shaq could certainly be part of a Celtics solution in the middle while Perkins rehabilitates from major knee surgery, buying them some invaluable time.
And maybe – just maybe – Shaq’s presence in the offense would free up Kevin Garnett a little more on the offensive end, allowing Garnett to play from the high post, facing the basket, instead of on the block with his back to the hoop. Garnett then would become a great mismatch in the Celtics’ favor, all while being able to better exploit his sensational passing ability.
That is the best-case scenario.
Beyond all of that, let’s recognize that the Celtics have a business to run. If the Celtics are going to get to the Finals again in the next two years, they will probably have to do it the same way they did last season. The Celtics will have to pace themselves during the regular season. They will have to balance minutes and take off some nights. They will have to qualify for the playoffs as a No. 3 or No. 4 seed and take their chances in the spring, hoping that Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have another spirited run in them.
Along the way, if Shaq is as colorful and entertaining as he has been throughout the majority of his career, no one will mind if there are a few laughs and shenanigans along the way. In sports, that is all part of the product now. But if Shaq shows up in the fall looking like Oliver Miller and plays like Vitaly Potapenko, the chuckles throughout the sports world will have an entirely different meaning.
People won’t be laughing with Shaq and the Celtics.
They’ll be laughing at them.
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