Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

August 4, 2010

Shaquille O’Neal and the Two Celtics Seasons

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:50 pm

Last year, I think it’s safe to say, the Boston Celtics had two very different seasons–an underwhelming regular season where they looked old and limited, and a playoff run where they recaptured the defensive intensity and offensive versatility of their 2008 title team.

The general assumption, as best I can tell, seems to be that Boston will do something similar in 2010-11–coast into the playoffs, then turn it on for April and May and perhaps provide the Miami Heat the greatest challenge in the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, there are a lot of reasons to worry that this year’s Celtics will be even worse in the regular season than they were a season ago, and a pessimistic SCHOENE projection (more on that in the book) seems to have picked up on all of them.

The most glaring need, as of our first run of projections, was bench depth on the wing (where Tony Allen departed after backing up all three perimeter positions at times during the playoffs) and depth in the post. Boston addressed the former with Von Wafer, and if Shaquille O’Neal is really headed to Beantown for the minimum, as’s A. Sherrod Blakely reported yesterday, he’ll help the void up front.

Yes, the Celtics already signed Jermaine O’Neal using their mid-level exception, but O’Neal merely serves to fill the minutes Kendrick Perkins played last season. Having torn his ACL in the NBA Finals, Perkins is unlikely to be back in uniform before the All-Star break. Even then, given the difficulty of coming back from ACL surgery, Boston can’t count on Perkins being anywhere near full strength until the playoffs at the very earliest.

Add in the retirement of Rasheed Wallace, and that left the Celtics–barring a trade or Wallace changing his mind–with rookies Semih Erden and Luke Harangody as their fourth big men. Any injury to the three players ahead of them on the depth chart–and it’s hard to see O’Neal and Kevin Garnett as iron men–would have left those two former late second-round picks as the only backup posts on the roster. (Boston doesn’t even have any obvious candidate to play smallball four.) Currently, SCHOENE projects them each as about a win below replacement level in their expected minutes.

O’Neal might not be an ideal fit for Boston, and CelticsHub has a good rundown of the issues he presents, but sometimes talent wins out. Even at 38, O’Neal is a far better player than either Erden or Harangody; last season, he posted 2.5 WARP for Cleveland. In fact, O’Neal’s projection for 2010-11 is better than any Celtics big man save Garnett and Perkins. (WARP has never been an especially big fan of Big Baby Davis.)

So O’Neal should help Boston during the first season (SCHOENE sees him adding nearly two wins to the team’s projection). The question is what kind of problem he might be during the second season. If–and this is a big if–Perkins is able to return to the starting lineup, a backup frontcourt of Davis and Jermaine O’Neal makes far more sense than any combination involving Shaquille O’Neal. During the playoffs, O’Neal’s defensive limitations are more likely to be exposed by opponents with plenty of time to gameplan for the Celtics, so he could be benched at times. It’s hard to see O’Neal reacting well to that.

In the final analysis, your assessment of this move probably depends on how much help you thought Boston needed for the regular season. My take was on the extremely dire side, so I think this is an important addition that will help solidify the Celtics’ seeding.

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