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What Shaq brings to the Celtics

Now that Shaquille O’Neal [1] has come to terms with the Celtics [2] on a two-year contract for the veteran minimum, we can address what it means on the court.

O’Neal is 38 years old and will be 39 in March. It’s impossible to write about Shaq without mentioning his age (or his conditioning) because he’s not the same player who destroyed the NBA earlier this decade and he hasn’t been for several years.

Since his first season with the Heat, 2004-05, Shaq has gone over the 2,000-minute mark just once. That was in 2008-09 when he shot almost 61 percent and was named to the All-NBA third team with Phoenix.

The Suns were so enthralled with his work that they traded him for to the Cavs for Sasha Pavlovic [3], Ben Wallace [4] and a second-round pick. They promptly released both players, making the return for Shaq a strict salary dump. The Cavs are letting him leave for nothing.

That doesn’t mean he’s not effective. In 53 games with Cleveland, Shaq averaged 12 points and 6.7 rebounds in about 24 minutes of action a game and remained a productive low-post scorer and rebounder, especially on the defensive glass. He was not, however, the difference-maker for the Cavs against the Magic and Dwight Howard [5] as advertised last summer.

The good news for the Celtics is that they don’t need him to be one. They don’t need 20 and 10 every night, and he’s not the center complement for a young perimeter superstar. as with Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant [6], Dwyane Wade [7] and LeBron James [8] elsewhere in his career. What they need is for him to team with Jermaine O’Neal [9] to hold down the middle until Kendrick Perkins [10] returns from knee surgery, which may be as late as the All-Star break.

After that? Who knows. That’s something for Doc Rivers [11] to figure out in February.

For now, the Celtics have fortified their front line and credit Danny Ainge with doing it deliberately and without panic. The Celtics could have had Shaq as far back as early July if they were willing to give him their mid-level exception. They didn’t, using that money to sign the younger O’Neal. They could have had him back in mid-July if they could have worked out a sign-and-trade, but they didn’t go for that either.

Instead, Ainge wisely waited for his market to evaporate and once the Hawks, Mavs and Spurs moved on the Celtics were really his only chance to get back in the game with a contender. The compromise is the second year, but really Shaq is here at their price, not his.

That’s important because if there’s been a criticism of O’Neal in recent years, beyond his lack of mobility, it’s been how his overwhelming persona fits in the locker room when he is no longer the top dog. He feuded with Kobe in LA, Pat Riley [12] in Miami and there were whispers of tension in Phoenix and Cleveland. He also took the time to slapdown Howard, Stan Van Gundy [13] (Shaq dubbed him the ‘Master of Panic’) and the Magic whenever possible. So, if you’re keeping score at home Shaq has a vendetta against each of the Celtics main championship rivals.

Had he gone to a place like Atlanta it would have presented an interesting dynamic for a team without an acknowledged leader. In Boston he will join a team with huge personalities already in place. Kevin Garnett [14], Paul Pierce [15], Ray Allen [16] and Rajon Rondo [17] each march to the beat of their own drummer, to say nothing of the comedy stylings of Glen Davis [18] and Nate Robinson [19] or the down-home honesty of Kendrick Perkins.

When it comes to the Celtics you can be who you want to be so long as you perform when your name is called and then you keep your opinions to yourself when it’s not.

As long as that’s cool with the Big Leprechaun, then he’ll be just another featured attraction for their museum exhibit of a roster. That’s 52 All-Star Game appearances and two former MVPs on one team. Yes, the Celtics are old, but they deserve the benefit of the doubt that they may be a unique collection of veteran talent, rather than an aging hunk of junk.

If not, then it’s only money and the minimum amount of it at that. Of far greater concern is whether he can adjust his game to the Celtics and them to him.

While he immediately becomes their best low-post scoring option, his lack of mobility will make it difficult for him to carry out the Perkins role of setting screens on the perimeter and he will also need to stay out of the paint so Rondo can create. It will be up to Doc Rivers to create an offensive environment where Shaq can do what he does best while not not detracting from what the Celtics do so well, namely Rondo’s penetration and ball movement leading to open shots.

On defense he remains an unmovable mountain when matched up one-on-one, and a very good rebounder, which this team sorely needs. But opponents will attack him mercilessly on the pick and roll, offensive staples of both the Magic and Heat.

That will put pressure on Garnett to cover ground as a help-side defender when Shaq is in the game. Because that is one of Garnett’s strengths, it would not be shocking to see Shaq play significant minutes alongside KG. That would raise the possibility of starting Shaq and you can also make an argument that Davis and Jermaine O’Neal would compliment each other as a second unit frontline better than Shaq and Big Baby would.

But really, that’s all semantics. The likelihood that all those players stay healthy over an 82-game season is as remote as Shaq making 75 percent of his free throws. What the Celtics needed was strength in numbers up front and the question to ask today is whether the O’Neals are an upgrade over Rasheed Wallace [20] and Shelden Williams [21]. The obvious answer is yes and at the same price.

Where Shaq really helps the Celtics is in the regular season. You might say that the 82-game grind is meaningless for this team, but it’s not totally. The East is going to be loaded next season with Miami joining Boston and Orlando as legit contenders, the Hawks a notch below and what should be significantly-improved teams in Chicago and Milwaukee.

The Celtics still have to get through those games and be as healthy as possible once the postseason starts. Homecourt advantage in a round or two wouldn’t hurt the cause either. Shaq provides some serious frontcourt insurance on both fronts.

He’s a gamble, but he’s a low-cost gamble and Doc Rivers and company didn’t re-up to be decent this season. They came back to try and win a championship. Shaq may not put them over the top, but he does make them better.