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When Kendrick Perkins trashed his knee in last year’s NBA Finals, help at the center position shot straight to the top of the Celtics’ offseason wishlist.
One of the Celtics’ great strengths in last year’s improbable playoff run was their ability to frustrate opposing big men. With Perkins, Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, and small doses of Brian Scalabrine, the C’s were able to play a physically imposing style of defense that proved to be advantageous against much of the league’s iron last spring. Whether it was solid defense or outright fouling, players like Orlando’s Dwight Howard were sent packing with a bevy of frustrations.
As Perkins’ injury revealed an extended absence was to follow, Danny Ainge and the Celtics brain trust decided to add ample help at the center position this offseason. Let’s take a look at who will be taking jump balls for the Green in 2010-2011.
Big Perk won’t see court time until early 2011, but that hasn’t lessened his desire. “At the end of the day you can say what you want, but I’m really the captain of the defense,” Perkins said. “And that won’t change.” He is referring to the marquee additions the Celtics made this offseason in response to his torn ACL. Lest there be any doubt, Perkins is firmly ensconced as the man in the middle and can’t wait to get back and prove it.
The 280-pounder from Ozen High School will turn 26 this November and has plenty of basketball left to play. The recent additions will only serve as further motivation for the already intense Perkins. Perkins’ PPG averages have continued to climb over the last three seasons, peaking last year at 10.8 PPG. A career 6 rebounds-per-game guy, Perk has averaged 8.1 and 7.6 RPG the last two seasons respectively. Expect his minutes and points to take a dip, particularly when he first hits the floor in February. Knowing the Celtics commitment to defense, Perkins will continue to hit the boards hard and could experience a career year in the rebounding department with the added pressure from Messrs. O’Neal.
Perkins has become the epitome of truth-in-advertising. Celtics fans know what to expect, and the young big man is becoming a 10-10 mainstay in this league. Hopefully his injury will do nothing to diminish his standing, but only time will tell.
If Perkins is a strong, silent type, then Shaquille O’Neal is his antithesis. The big man with the enormous personality and huge resume lands on his fourth team in as many years. Everything O’Neal does is noteworthy, and his offseason signing with C’s is no exception. Settling for the veteran minimum and spurning bigger offers from the likes of conference pest Atlanta, the Big Shamrock wants to add one more championship ring as his career winds to a close.
His rap sheet reads like few to ever play the game. O’Neal’s 18 seasons of service with 12 All-Star appearances and 24.1 career PPG underscoring his ability to operate at a high level with consistent results. He spent many of those seasons scoring close to 30-a-game all while pulling down rebounds by the dozen. Shaquille O’Neal is quite simply one of the best to ever do it and probably the most physically dominant player one will ever see. Sure, those days are long since gone, but O’Neal is a smart player, and his knowledge will invariably affect his new teammates.
Aside from his basketball IQ, O’Neal is as loose and charismatic as any player in basketball. Early locker room footage of goofy dance routines featuring O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Nate Robinson, and others has surfaced, and the newest incarnation of the Celtics is reminiscent of a certain curse-breaking Red Sox team of “idiots” from a few years back. While O’Neal may no longer be a frontline starter, his current role as place-holder, mentor, wily veteran (or any other of the myriad roles he will assume) will provide the Celtics with the added depth they have missed since the departures of James Posey and P.J. Brown. There isn’t a team in the league that would have been a better match.
Something about Jermaine O’Neal has always made him seem young. Maybe it’s that he came directly out of High School, back when that sort of thing was permitted under commissioner David Stern. Maybe it’s his ageless face, same now as it was back when Portland drafted him. Maybe it’s that he’s only played in 863 games despite being in the league for 15 seasons. Fifteen. He’s been around almost as long as his namesake Shaquille, but with a piebald history.
Ironically, it was probably new teammate and former South Carolinian Kevin Garnett’s straight-from-high-school drafting that paved the way for Jermaine O’Neal. Himself out of Eau Claire HS in South Carolina, O’Neal wanted to emulate the similarly built and celebrated athlete. Once the youngest player to ever play in an NBA game (since eclipsed by LA’s Andrew Bynum), O’Neal had a world of expectations awaiting. He struggled to find his ground in Portland, surrounded by veterans who rather than help in mentoring him, ate up his minutes instead. After a successful trade to the Indiana Pacers, O’Neal was rocked again by Ron Artest’s brawl at the Palace in Auburn Hills in November of 2004. After a lengthy suspension, the talented but troubled center has struggled to regain his footing.
What can he bring to the table? Well, a lot or a little, depending on which O’Neal shows up. At his best, he regularly averaged 20/10 seasons, but more recently has struggled to find consistency in limited playing time. Though he had a chance to re-sign with Miami, he felt the Celtics proved to be a better fit, LeBron James and Chris Bosh be damned.
“I know what [Boston] represents,’’ O’Neal said after officially signing a two-year deal with the Celtics. “I know what this organization represents. I know what the guys on that court represent. They compete at a very high level on the floor. They don’t really care who gets the credit for scoring or rebounding or whatever it may be. They just play together and play to win. Obviously, those guys have a ring already, but they want another one. I don’t have a ring, and I want one.’’
When talented guys learn to put team first, good things usually follow. Whether or not O’Neal can excel in that reduced role remains to be seen. But if his words are any indication, he might surprise some people. It doesn’t hurt that he’s still capable of putting up 13 a night while pulling down 7 or more rebounds per game as well.
Who is this Turk? For starters, you may have forgotten that he was drafted in 2008, lost in the afterglow of newly-raised Banner 17. Little is known about the 24-year-old Turk, but Danny Ainge was keen enough to pry him away from his Turkish team to sign a two-year deal here. As it stands, the kid will be the fourth-string center behind the three aforementioned bigs.
Erden’s early returns in preseason action seem underwhelming: 5.8PPG and 4RPG, but what my eyes tell me is that this kid may actually be able to play. He already has a good understanding of defensive position and his anticipation is above average for sure. His shot defense is a fast becoming a go-to weapon for the young player. Though blocks have a ways to go, his hands-up misdirections are enough to frustrate many of his smaller opponents.
While playing time will be a work-in-progress, Erden may benefit from his older mentors much in the same way Rajon Rondo’s willingness to listen catapulted his professional development in bounds.
The entire success of the Celtics will depend on the center position this season. To get through the East yet again, they will have to be better than Orlando and Miami. They’ve already displayed an ability to frustrate and harass Dwight Howard, effectively crumbling the Magic’s game plan in the process. Though star-studded and talent laden, Miami will have a hard time matching the size the Celtics will be able to trot out at will.
Can the Celtics go small with Miami? No, and they can’t run with them either. Problem is, it’s tough to run when you’ve got brick walls everywhere.