The Hardy Handful, Shaq-cavalry, B Troop, The Expendables, Boston’s Green Berets, The Mop-Up Mob—what’s in a name? Well an identity perhaps. The backups have never been either a distinct unit or a distinguished one during the New Big Three era. Perhaps it is time for that to change.
A few weeks back FLCeltsFan brought up the idea that Shaquille O’Neal might embrace the role of leader of a second team. The more I have thought about this, the better the idea has become. Most observers have expressed concern about Shaq’s ability to forego being the center of attention (pun noted only in passing). True, his personality does not lend itself to being a wall flower, but he has accepted (and his team has thrived) on his being a sidekick—first to Kobe and again with Dwayne Wade. His forays as a role player, in Phoenix and last year in Cleveland, have met with less success. I think this might be partially due to him being miscast as a minor complementary cog substituting into starting units where his role was ill-defined and somewhat at odds with the existing structure.
Assuming leadership of a satellite group where his role would be well defined and limited to activity that plays to his remaining strengths might be just the ticket. If he bought into this scenario with gusto, and if there is anything Shaq does well it is gusto, then the benefits might be several. For O’Neal, he would be allowed to concentrate on the three things he does very well still—clog the lane on defense, rebound the ball, and play bully in the low box creating high percentage shots, drawing fouls, and collapsing the defense to open up his teammates. For a second unit he could instill a swagger by backing a swarming defense, initiating transition offense, and providing an inside threat later in the shot clock. For the team he could turn the drop-off typical of substitutes into a second wave keeping the pressure on opponents rather than allowing them breathing room. Lending his enormous personality to highlight the reserves and give them a sense of collective worth might be his finest cameo role, and one that gets his Academy nod, and another Championship.
This type of asset has never been part of the new century Celtics contenders. As the aging stars fade, this second unit could, in fact should, become a more and more significant part of vying for a title. This year, next year, sometime soon, either this group will become more of a factor, or Boston will fade into down cycle of rebuilding rather than reloading. It’s needed, it’s possible, it’s worth cultivating.
There are also some ancillary benefits. Taking Shaq at his word that this is the last lap, the remainder of the non-starters are all playing for a contract. Wafer, Davis, Daniels, Oliver, and Gaffney have no contract for next year (in fact only Marquis and Big Baby are guaranteed for this year). Nate, Luke, Semih, and Avery have only two years although Bradley has an additional two at the team’s option. That’s nine players in camp who may be tempted to let their personal agenda outweigh that of the team. Give these guys a clique to which they belong and you give them another value system and support group to sway their devotion. Now I don’t think Doc will hesitate to yank a very short leash if any of these stray from the Ubuntu theme but any reinforcement system works better if there is both push and pull.
Another positive that might emerge from an up-tempo scrambling backup crew is the dual effect of speed and energy. On the opposition this saps reserves of stamina, effectively limiting the effectiveness of starters playing long minutes as well as pushing their less talented reserves onto the floor for more time. For the Celtics it means that the rotation goes ten deep, maybe even twelve. There’s nothing that keeps the bottom half of the bench more engaged, in practice and in games, than the prospect of minutes, and recognition for contributing. Create an identity and a reservoir of pride in a second unit and the whole team becomes stronger, easier to coach, and harder to divide.