Well no, I wasn’t actually referring to those outer Shaq layers that have tended more and more to continue moving violently after each running step. There will, however, be some substantial effects/opportunities resulting from adding the Jolly Green Giant. On both the offensive and defensive ends his enormous presence can be a game changer. It does remain to be seen whether taking a 90% pay cut robs him of any incentive to report to camp in basketball shape (Shaquille personifies a line I use frequently, “I’m always in shape, it just tends toward round.”) If he does arrive ready to ball, then there are some intriguing effects that may emerge.
First, and perhaps foremost, is the fact that the Celtics have, since the departure of Al Jefferson, lacked a consistent inside threat that allowed them to play inside-out. Get the ball to Shaq within four feet of the basket and almost no one can stop him from scoring without fouling. Boston is very adept at ball reversal, most teams try to deny the pass inside, it's a loooong trip around Shaq, getting it to him deep in the paint should work. Yes, his free throw shooting is an adventure, but those are team fouls also and others on his team are far less inept at the line. Defenses tend to collapse toward the paint and in this case contracting defenses equals stretching the floor. Bring two or more defenders into the paint and not only are long-range bombers like Allen, Pierce, Nate, and Wafer opened up, but also mid-range guys like Jermaine, Garnett, Daniels, Davis, and the rookies Harangody and Bradley. When the troops are assaulting Mount O’Neal, somebody, maybe several somebodies, are left alone. Similarly, loading up defenders on one side of the paint to smother Shaquille tends to leave the weak side vulnerable to cutters which is a strength of Rondo, Pierce, Daniels, Wafer, and even Ray. Oh and did I mention that Shaq is one of the better passing big men? Wilt Chamberlain once led the league in assists by hitting open teammates freed by The Stilt’s inside threat. An ancillary positive is the fact that double-teams leave someone unhindered to go to the boards.
Now Shaq is never going to draw defenders out of the paint with the threat of his jump shooting, but he can draw them to one side and think what a huge target he makes for Rondo when his penetrations on the opposite side draw the center to help. Speaking of huge, if you thought Big Baby’s pick was like running into a mountain, Shaquille might be compared to the whole range. Yeah, you can go around the pick, but it might be a three-day trip. As Allen swings back and forth along the baseline, Shaq can set a staggered pick all by himself.
Some have complained that a Shaq team will never run the ball. True the Big Leprechaun will likely never fill a fast-break lane (although you might be surprised at his alacrity lunging down the lane on a pick and roll), but he does rebound well and makes the outlet pass—and those are the first two steps in the run-baby-run!
Probably of more concern is the other team’s center beating O’Neal down the floor when the opponents have the ball. Hopefully this problem will be alleviated by the fact that Shaq will probably play only 20 minutes a game or less. With his play limited to five- or six-minute spells, he should be able to get back on defense without resorting to walking down huffing and puffing.
Another valid concern is how well he defends the pick-and-roll. The Celtics favor their centers showing and recovering, and at 39 Shaq, never fleet of foot, has slowed considerably. While it remains to be seen just how much of a problem this becomes, another thought occurred to me. The Celtics’ defensive scheme of overplaying of the strong side has a lot of zone principles in play. Might the Green actually play some zone this year? There is no doubt that the C’s have more size in the paint than in recent years and a full quota of players long on experience (and years). A zone keeps your big guys near the paint (and the boards) and allows your perimeter players to limit their scrambling from one side of the court to the other and back. It also eliminates a lot of the fighting-through-the-screens since there is always “the next defender” on the other side. These activities wear on a player, especially an older player, and on this team Jermaine O’Neal with 14 years in the league, is a relative baby at only 32 years of age when they roll the ball out in late October.
One final Shaq thought, currently it is assumed he will come off the bench and hence would play a lot with the second unit. Inside out is a relatively simple offensive approach and O’Neal’s likely court-mates (Nate, Marquis, Von, Big Baby) don’t have extensive experience with one another and are not known for creating their own shots. His presence with this group might make them much more efficient offensively. Don’t you just love it when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts?