Shaquille O'Neal vs. Darko Milicic, a bet

August, 4, 2010
8/04/10
3:48
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Every now and again I get it in my head to place some kind of embarrassing public wager.

I usually lose, which can be painful.

So, let's do it again!

Here's the deal: The Celtics have reportedly come to an agreement with Shaquille O'Neal, which is generally being seen as a good, or at least potentially good, thing.

Meanwhile, just about everybody agrees that about the dumbest move of the offseason was the Timberwolves' four-year, $20 million contract for Darko Milicic.

Here's my bet, or prediction: Milicic will help his team more than O'Neal will this upcoming season.

Why do I say that?

Zach Lowe of CelticsHub has done a nearly perfect job of articulating the many reasons to worry about O'Neal in green. That's a must-read. (Kevin Pelton is a bit sunnier.)

My reasons:

The Celtics have succeeded on the basis of team defense

It's five guys on a string. O'Neal does not move on a string. He doesn't even follow team instructions on defense. "Shaq is famous," says Scouts Inc.'s David Thorpe, "for doing his own thing on defense. When he's supposed to show on the pick-and-roll he does not show. That doesn't mean he isn't going to change. But I think that's going to be a problem. Even if the Celtics just want him to score a few buckets, doesn't that take away from what the team's identity is?"

Thorpe relays a line from his assistant, Anthony Macri: "What's going to hurt the Boston defense more -- the departure of Tom Thibodeau, or the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal?"

Age

O'Neal will be 39 years old before the playoffs. Milicic is 25. This is the part of the bet where I feel like I'm cheating. It's the only part.

The truth is, though, that agile, athletic big men in their prime years are seldom disastrous to sign. I'm reminded of the many howls about Nene's big deal several years ago. Nobody could see why you'd pay him $10 million a year, but now lots of people wish they had. I'm not saying Milicic is the same player as Nene, but he's making half the salary. And he's still enormous, agile and strong.

Minutes

Milicic will play a lot of them on a team that needs all the talent it can get, and just lost big men Al Jefferson and Ryan Hollins. The only other real center with NBA experience under contract is Kosta Koufos. The last thing the Celtics want is for Shaquille O'Neal to play huge minutes.

System

Big men get touches all the time in Minnesota because Kurt Rambis' offense runs through them. That means Milicic will be in the mix play after play. It's unclear what role O'Neal will play in a Boston offense that needs to find meaningful opportunities for Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.

Milicic is finally wanted

I had the idea for this post, and was kind of excited about it. Then I looked at Milicic's and O'Neal's stats last season. They were really not close. Milicic's PER was 12.8 -- below average for all players. O'Neal's was 17.9 -- which is above average and frankly not bad. Because of their ages, I was willing to project one up and the other down ... but that much? The idea was essentially dead.

I called Thorpe. I told him my original idea, and asked him to help me brainstorm a better candidate than Milicic.

He said he thought Milicic was perfect. The first words out of his mouth were "royal jelly." As a player development coach, Thorpe is convincing that a supportive coach, and lots of minutes are important to inspiring players to do their very best. We have delved into this point at length in the past.

In any case, it's hard to imagine a player who has been more beat up in his first few NBA seasons. Milicic was scorned as a draft pick, then nailed to the bench as a player. If coaches can inspire a young player to greatness with belief and trust, he experienced the precise opposite of that.

Minnesota -- where the GM recently said he was "like manna from heaven" -- is the first team to really try treating him differently. Thorpe's bet is that such an approach is likely to inspire the best play of Milicic's young career, and I've found you can do worse than to trust the hoops insights of one David Thorpe.

The bet

So, here's the deal: I'm not saying Milicic will score more, play better D, have a better PER or anything else. I'm saying that over the course of this season, smart analysis will show he'll produce more at both ends of the floor, in total. In other words, heck yes we'll factor in defense, and heck yes, I'll take the advantage I'll get from the reality that he's likely to play more minutes.

And that may not be fair in judging the better player, but it's fair when we're talking about the value of signing this or that player -- players who can get on the floor are more valuable than players who can't.

If the two have similar production, at both ends of the floor, we'll appoint some kind of commission of stat geeks to poke into all the best available metrics -- PER, SCHOENE, plus/minus, WinScore, or whatever they want to use -- to break the tie.

The point

Here's what I'm really getting at with all that. O'Neal has a huge reputation. Milicic has a tiny one. But reputations aren't everything, and in reality these two players are not so different.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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