With opening night right around the corner, it's looking more and more like Shaquille O'Neal will start at center for the Boston Celtics. Two or three months ago, it was the other O'Neal, Jermaine, who was the clear front runner and public favorite to replace the injured Kendrick Perkins for the time being. But two things happened over the course of training camp and the preseason that shifted the way things were probably supposed to unfold: Jermaine suffered a rash of injuries, and Shaq didn't play like the oldest man in the NBA.
Jermaine suffered from a sore hamstring, a sore back, and a sore left wrist, which he apparently tore cartilage in during a preseason victory over the Toronto Raptors just over a week ago. (Don't worry, JO's expected to be ready for opening night. I usually associate torn cartilage with not playing, but apparently he's able to work his way through this issue.) As a result, he played in just four preseason games for a total of 62 minutes. His time with the other starters was limited, and his offense was sluggish at points, similar to Kevin Garnett's during the first two exhibition contests.
Meanwhile, Shaq defied the critics who claimed he would pull the Rasheed Wallace Treatment by showing up to camp in mediocre shape, going through the motions during the regular season, and eventually turning it on come playoff time. Instead, he had one of the best training camps of anyone on the roster, earned the praise of Doc Rivers for the shape he was in, and went on to start five of the eight preseason games, averaging 9.0 points and 4.8 rebounds in 16.2 minutes of action per game. He shot a blistering 69.2 percent from the field in those five games, and, on multiple occasions, was the first Celtic up the floor on offense. He showed he can still handle himself in the post, and even displayed some reserved athleticism, by either throwing down or converting a number of Rajon Rondo lob passes.
So it looks like Shaq will start on Tuesday, but will he remain in that spot once Jermaine has enough reps to get a rhythm to his game? If both were healthy, who would get the starting nod? Let's debate.
Why Shaq Should Start
First and foremost, Shaq gives the starting five a legitimate post presence that it hasn't had since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came to Boston. The Celtics weren't a great offensive team by any stretch last season, as they ranked 15th in the league in offensive efficency (107.7 points per 100 possessions). Part of the issue might have been the lack of a go-to option in the post, as much of the team's offense became perimeter based. Shaq averaged 5.2 shots per game at the rim for Cleveland last season, and made just over 67 percent of those attempts, and based on what we saw during the preseason, he can still serve as a go-to man down low for extended stretches.
Even at their older ages, Shaq and Kevin Garnett can pose as quite a tandem in the paint, and their chemistry in the preseason was undeniable. They seem to legitimately enjoy the company of one another off the court, and on the court, Garnett's already alluded to Shaq making things easier for him. Shaq's presence could cut down on the number of double-teams Garnett sees, and both are credible interior passers (Garnett's borderline excellent), meaning, if a double-team does show up, either one should be able to drop it off to the other (we saw this on numerous occasions throughout the preseason. In most instances, it was Shaq who drew double coverage, making Garnett the benefactor).
Shaq will most likely struggle defending the pick-and-roll, as he has for the majority of his career. We shouldn't really expect something like that to change, especially with Father Time not necessarily on his side. But placing Shaq in a lineup with Kevin Garnett will help to safeguard his deficiencies when it comes to pick-and-roll defense. Garnett's an excellent help defender, who knows the rotations the Celtics need to make on defense better than any other player. We actually got a firsthand look at Garnett aiding Shaq on pick-and-roll coverage in the final preseason game against the New Jersey Nets. Around the 10:20 mark of the first quarter, Johan Petro set a screen for Devin Harris, bringing Shaq out of the paint and up to the top of the key. When Petro rolled, Shaq was slow to recover, but Garnett, who was down in the paint guarding Kris Humphries, correctly rotated over to where Petro was on the left hand side of the hoop, and stole Harris's pass as it was about to hit Petro on the numbers. This is only one instance of course, and Garnett probably won't be able to properly cover Shaq on every possession, but Shaq might not struggle as mightily as some might expect on every possession either. If Shaq is going to struggle, however, who would you rather have covering his back? Kevin Garnett or Glen Davis? We know Davis brings energy, but can we expect him to make the proper rotations as often as Garnett?
Aside from being able to handle some of the league's stronger centers by himself, Shaq sets monstrous picks, which bodes well for the likes of Rondo and Ray Allen, who often curls off of baseline screens for mid-range jump shots.
Much like he's still a credible threat offensively, Shaq's also still a rebounding presence, both offensively and defensively. Based on where he plays on the floor, he should find himself in plenty of situations where he can fight for offensive rebounds, and still be in good position to put the ball back up and score. Then, on defense, when he snags the ball, he can throw a mean outlet pass, which helps the Celtics who look to run as often as possible. Shaq initiating the fast break should be enough, as it isn't realistic to expect him to Usain Bolt it down the court every single time the Celtics look to score in transition. Did we expect that out of Kendrick Perkins? And when the fast break fails to materialize, Shaq can still make his way down the court and set himself up down low with enough time on the shot clock to run a half court set.
Why Shaq Should Come Off the Bench
You could also make the case that Shaq would better serve the second unit, and many of the reasons are similar to why he should start. His offense comes first once again, and it's not all that different from the reason he would fit in well with the starters. He'd give the bench a solid post presence, and he'd be up against second and third string centers. Doesn't sound too bad. He could help initiate the fast break, and again, make his way up the court in time to generate something in the half court if nothing materializes on the break. Finally, if he receives the ball enough on offense, he could probably eat up the other team's fouls, thus putting them in the penalty earlier, meaning, when the starters came back in, they'd be at the free throw line sooner heading down the stretch.
Why Jermaine O'Neal Should Start
The games of the O'Neals obviously differ, particularly on offense. Jermaine is more capable of spreading the floor and the Celtics are big on spacing the floor on the offensive end. Last season for the Heat, he attempted 3.1 shots per game at the rim, 2.8 attempts from the 10-15 foot range, and 2.9 attempts from the 16-23 foot range. His field goal attempts per game should obviously take a hit this season, but he'll serve as another reliable pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop option for Rondo, alongside Garnett.
Nobody's perfect when it comes to guarding the pick-and-roll, but Jermaine shouldn't suffer the same ways Shaq most likely will, due to an advantage in mobility and athleticism. If there's one thing we can take away from Jermaine's limited time on the court during the preseason, it's that he's still very in-tune on defense, particularly when it comes time to rotate over and provide help defense. In his first preseason game alone he swatted three shots and went on to block five more over his final three preseason appearances. I'd argue Jermaine has a leg up on Shaq defensively, and pairing him up front with another great help defender in Garnett would help to solidify a defensive-minded front line. Jermaine's already stated that defense is his primary focus this season.
Jermaine's low post shooting statistics weren't all that different from Garnett's last season. Both took right around three shots at the rim per game last season, and shot between 65 and 70 percent from that spot. Garnett's attempts at the rim should increase this season if Doc Rivers is as serious about posting him up more as he appears to be. If Garnett is able to score around the rim more than he did last year, and Jermaine can chip in a few shots around the rim as well, the Celtics might not need Shaq's post presence in the starting lineup this season the way they might have needed something like it last season.
Jermaine's already shown us he's still capable of clearing the glass, as evidenced by his 12-rebound game against Philadelphia on October 12. But it's still difficult to tell right now whether Jermaine holds any true advantage over Shaq on the glass. Both put up nearly identical rebounding numbers last season for their respective teams. We'll hopefully see a resurgence in Garnett the rebounder, whose 7.3 boards per game average last season wasn't necessarily poor, but it was considerably lower than his averages in 2008-2009 and 2007-2008.
Why Jermaine O'Neal Should Come Off the Bench
The hope this season is that the second unit is equipped with enough offensive firepower to either maintain or increase the leads the starters will hopefully be leaving them with the majority of the time. Defensively, the bench should do a decent job with guys like Delonte West (when he returns from suspension), Marquis Daniels (Doc still credits him as one of the team's best one-on-one defenders), and Davis (always willing to draw offensive fouls). But adding a defensive-minded player like Jermaine to the group should help to stabilize things even further down low. Between his rebounding, shot blocking ability, and willingness to take charges (similar to Davis), he might be the better option defensively for the second unit.