Earlier today my colleague Chase Thomas rated the Boston Celtics‘ signing of Shaquille O’Neal as somewhere between Incredibly Stupid and Less Significant Than An Afternoon Cleaning Belly Button Lint. Okay, probably it’d actually be an intriguing saga if you had enough lint in your belly button that it took a whole afternoon to clean that sucker up, but that’s a different, far nastier, story. Me, I’m just here to give my own somewhat sunnier take on the deal, doing it Boston-style where I discuss whether each aspect is “smaht” or “not smaht” (for non-Bostonians that translates roughly into “smart” or “highly unintelligent”).
From The Shaq Side:
As Chase pointed out in a post a little while ago, The Big Contract Seeker had originally been looking to make around 8 million next season. In American dollars. I’m betting he would’ve found a bunch more takers if he’d been looking to get 8 million in say yen (which’d be less than $93,000 dollars). He put that out there and all he heard back was the Big Echo (“Hello… Hello… Hello…”). The team that was most rumored to be interested in him was the Atlanta Hawks (although they were offering less than he wanted), but the idea seemed to make sense for both sides. The Hawks are a bit undersized, got manhandled by Dwight Howard in the playoffs, and they needed to add something if they hoped to make the next step. Plus, perhaps Shaq could bring some veteran leadership to the locker room (emphasis on “perhaps” ‘cuz he’s also been known to complain when he doesn’t get his touches or way).
However, Shaq finally realized he wasn’t gonna get anywhere near the money he’d hoped for. Even more impressively, he accepted that. Once it became clear he wasn’t getting the dough, then he had two options: pursue the place where he’ll have the largest role/most minutes or the spot where he’s most likely to contend for a ring. Assuming no dark horses like Oklahoma or Chicago make a huge jump, there really are only 4 serious contenders entering into the season: the Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Heat. Having played for three of them teams and going a perfect three-for-three in terms of burning bridges, the Celts were the only legit choice for a ring. On the other hand, the Hawks provided a chance for him to provide the largest impact on a still really good team.
Impressively, Shaq sublimated his ego, took the least amount of money possible, and chose the Celts. To me it seems a clear indication that not only has he put winning over self-agrandizement, but he’s also realized that he’s not the force he once was. Perhaps just two years ago Shaq probably would’ve felt that he was good enough to turn a winning team like the Hawks into championship material. Now he seems to understand that he’s just the Big Tweak, able to at best just give a little nudge to a championship contender.
From The Nickname Side:
Not only was his time in Cleveland a failure in the sense that he couldn’t help bring home the trophy, but it also hurt on an even larger level: no good nicknames came out of it. The Big Lake Erie? At least in Phoenix we got the Big Cactus or Big Shaqtus. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Shaq ‘cuz he’s been so lazy during his career and could’ve been far greater if he’d pushed himself even half the amount of a Kobe Bryant. How many years has he shown up to training camp out of shape? However, there’s no denying that he gives great quotes, and one of the best bits are when he gives himself dopey nicknames like The Big Aristotle. From that point of view, joining the Celtics is a gold mine. The Big Shamrock. The Big Leprechaun. I don’t think another team could’ve given him anywhere near as much ammo.
Now onto things from the Celtics point of view…
From The Financial Side:
The Celts gave him the minimum they could. Well, they made it a two-year deal rather than a one-year deal, but still, you can’t get much cheaper than that. Okay, I guess since it is the minimum you can’t get at all cheaper than that. Plus the two-year length isn’t that bad in the sense that, one, it probably made it easier for Shaq to commit ‘cuz he wanted a little bit of security. Not financial security, but just knowing he had a place on a team for his potentially last two years. Particularly after having spent the summer realizing there wasn’t much of a market. Second, the two-year time frame coincides with the length of KG and Ray Allen’s contracts, allowing Boston to do the Big Revamp all at once.
From The Can-We-Make-Shaq-Understand-His-Place Side:
While Shaq said all the right things before joining Cleveland, and he clearly accepted and knew LeBron was the definite, definite top dog, there were two issues: LeBron is young (and hasn’t won anything), plus there was no clear number two player on the team. Mo Williams? Zydrunas Ilgauskas? Perhaps if Antawn Jamison had been there for a year or so he could’ve established himself in that role. With that absence, it was almost understandable that Shaq felt he might be the second best player on the team and deserved his touches.
On the Celtics, those issues won’t be there. Off the court? The key guys and coach Doc Rivers have all won a ring, plus they’re older warriors who’ve been around the league for a while and established themselves. They’ve got so much veteran savvy on this team that a nuke could drop in their huddle and it wouldn’t create a ripple. On the court? KG, Pierce and Rondo are all definitely still better than Shaq. While Ray Allen and Jermaine O’Neal can provide decent arguments that they’re also ahead of him too. Regardless of how far down the totem pole Shaq believes he is, he most likely realizes that at best he’s #4. And if he doesn’t? Thanks to that minimum contract, the Celts can kick him out without worrying that his remaining salary will be a drain on the books.
From The Defensive Side:
Do we need to go into this? Even when Shaq was still at the peak of his powers during the end of his Laker tenure, he was known for being a lazy defender who couldn’t stop a pick-and-roll. Oddly enough however, the Big Eater was known to stop to chow Pickles and a Roll. If ever there was a team that’s success was predicated on its defense, it was last year’s Celts. None of their guys was able to produce consistently on offense (literally every night there was a different high scorer, and usually it was less that someone had an incredible game but more that the rest of the guys disappeared or stunk up the joint). In the playoffs their defense completely took the NBA’s top players out of their game (Wade, then LeBron, Dwight Howard and finally Kobe Jellybean Black Mamba Bryant). They did this by hustling, not by hanging out in the paint and hoping to block a shot (Shaq’s idea of defense). If Shaq doesn’t show on pick-and-rolls or rotate quickly on defense, then this just becomes a team that’s really good at being mediocre on offense.
Judgement: Not Smaht.
From The Offensive Side:
The Celtics struggle to score in the paint or get easy shots. KG was never one who liked to mix it up down low on offense (despite being nearly friggin’ seven feet tall!), and now that he’s older and gimpier, he may’ve literally only posted up less than a dozen times throughout the playoffs. Considering the Lakers won Game 7 after scoring only 13 points on -26% shooting, the Celtics really would’ve liked to have scored once in a blue moon. Shaq’s not the force he once was, but he can still do some damage down low. He was pretty effective against Chicago in the playoffs last year. His bulk also enables him to still draw fouls on opposing centers, which could put players like Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh in foul trouble, thus forcing their coaches to sit them. In a very real sense, Shaq’s offense has a better chance of stopping Howard than his defense does.
Additionally, if Shaq can be that effective down low, it forces opposing teams to draw up completely new defensive game plans to deal with the twenty minutes he’s on the court. That’s a lot of extra time not only for other coaching staffs, but time it will take away from that team working on defending the Celtics’ starting unit. Of course that’s a best case scenario, and the truth is it goes both ways. If the Celts want Shaq to be his most effective, then they’re gonna have to spend a bunch of time during the whole season learning to run a whole bunch of new sets to get Shaq the ball down low in good position while everyone’s properly spaced out.
From The Injury Side:
The Big Band-Aid has played in the league three more years than KG, and even with KG having missed huge chunks of the last two years due to injury, the Big Ticket has played over 500 more minutes than Shaq (I can’t believe I totally forgot KG’s got a Big nickname too! That makes the nickname argument even stronger. Will they have a Big-off? I can’t wait.). However, perhaps with Shaq in a reduced role and playing less minutes he’ll be less likely to injure himself. Remember, the games he missed last year was due to a freak finger injury caused by Big Baby, not by Shaq being a fat injury-prone good-fer-nuthin’.
On the flip-side, his signing helps the team deal with injury issues for the rest of the team. Starting center Kendrick Perkins will be out until around the All-Star break, and if the Boston faithful had to watch say Kwame “Stone Hands” Brown at the pivot for the first several months, there’d be a huge rash of suicides. Meanwhile, as everyone knows, The Other O’Neal (or Jermaine as his momma likes to call him) is also extremely injury-prone, so this should help limit Other’s minutes too. And don’t forget Doc Rivers also will once again try to limit KG’s minutes too. Yes, it’s sorta comical and like throwing a whole lot of band aids on top of each other, but as Hannibal from the A-Team would’ve said in full-on cliche mode, “It could be just crazy enough to work.” Oh no, wait, sorry I didn’t see the movie, so I forget his cliche line was, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Hmm, that could fit too.
Judgement: Could be Smaht, but could be really, really Not Smaht.
From The Emotional Side:
This off-season Paul Pierce was a real mensch (sorry, all this Amar’e Jew stuff has gotten to me) and accepted a severe pay cut in order to provide the Celtics with some financial flexibility. They then promptly let one of their best defenders, Tony Allen, walk. All this while the Heat bulked up and even the Lakers made a couple of nice tweaks. Pierce was not happy with this. Probably most Bostonians weren’t happy about this either. Regardless of whether Shaq is actually useful at all, he still brings enough enthusiasm to excite the team (and fans) into believing they not only can return to the Finals, but possibly even succeed this time. Without that belief, the regular season could’ve started out in a slog.
On the reverse side, emotions could give Shaq a big boost. When he’s felt comfortable (post-championship with both the Lakers and Heat), he comes into training camp out of shape and uninspired. When he feels like he has something to prove (such as when he first got to Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix and Cleveland), he actually works out and comes out playing with passion. This humbling (both in terms of the lack of interest in him and the huge, huge salary cut) should ensure that Shaq shows up ready and excited.
Things might not work out in the end, but the risk seems minimal to the Celtics. It’s not even just a question of will Shaq help or hurt the team. As Chase pointed out there’s a whole middle ground: The Big Green Giant might end up being The Big Insignificant Factor. Meaning we all caused a Big Much Ado About Nothing.