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Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Updated: August 5, 5:30 PM ET
MailShaq: Will the big man fit in?

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

With Shaquille O'Neal signing on with the Celtics, it seems only fitting that we devote an entire mailbag to the four-time NBA champion and 15-time NBA All-Star as fans brace for the addition of another surefire Hall of Famer to the Boston roster.

In fact, maybe this question best sums up this week's bag:

Q: Shouldn't we be calling the mailbag the MailShaq? -- Joe (Westerly, R.I.)

Indeed. Let's dive into the MailShaq.

Q: So where does adding Shaq leave the Celtics in the scheme of things in the NBA? Does it make them better than the Heat? Better than the Lakers? -- Randy (Boston)

A: Celtics players have been fond of noting that the Heat are a team to watch "on paper." Well, on paper, the Celtics just made themselves that much better. I know everyone wants to harp on the advanced age of this team, and it's a valid argument, but a team that came six minutes shy of winning a world title added veteran NBA frontcourt talent in Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal all while keeping nearly its entire core (sans Tony Allen) intact.

If Kendrick Perkins' recovery goes as planned and he's able to function at anything close to 100 percent by the postseason, I don't see how anyone can think the Celtics wouldn't be in the mix for title contention. Again, health will remain this team's biggest concern, but it's hard to rank it anywhere other than near the top of the Eastern Conference. Hey, the Celtics are the defending conference champs, right?

Did they do enough to keep pace with the Heat? We'll find out on opening night.

Q: Besides the obvious Kevin Garnett pairing, who shares the frontcourt with Shaq? Perkins and Shaq clearly isn't an option, and I'm not so sure about a twin O'Neal pair. That leaves Baby. Perk and Baby shared the court for a grand total of 109 minutes (h/t: CelticsHub) last season and the lineups were largely a disaster, especially on the defensive end. A Baby/Rasheed Wallace pairing was used more often, but wasn't exactly a huge success, either. So, what else can coach Doc Rivers do with this situation? -- Zain (Davis, Calif.)

A: As you noted, our friend Zach Lowe had a great breakdown this morning on how Shaq would mesh in Boston. I do think it may be in Boston's best interest to go to Shaq as the first player off the bench (whether replacing Perkins or Jermaine O'Neal) and use him with a starter-heavy lineup, including Garnett, that doesn't allow him to be exploited defensively.

However, I actually see potential in an O'Neal-O'Neal frontcourt. Celtics GM Danny Ainge noted that he was eager to utilize Jermaine O'Neal at the 4 this season, and high-mileage legs aside, I don't see why it can't work against another team's second unit. It's not like they're going to spend 20 minutes together on the court per game, so if you need to lean on that pairing for a sequence or two each game, I don't see a problem.

In the end, I really like the flexibility O'Neal's addition offers Boston. Although without ideal sets all the time, Boston can easily trot out a reserve-laden big lineup like O'Neal-O'Neal-Luke Harangody-Marquis Daniels-Rajon Rondo or go small with something like Jermaine O'Neal-Glen Davis-Daniels-Nate Robinson-Rondo. Go ahead and mix and match starters in those units. Again, it's not something you trot out there every day, but it offers greater flexibility than was available last season.

The interesting part will be whether a Shaq-Big Baby lineup could work. I know the Celtics were skittish about a Davis-Perkins frontcourt last season, but especially until Perkins returns, Shaq and Davis are bound to end up together if both are coming off the bench.

(While we're here, a tip of the cap to Zain, who was on the Von Wafer bandwagon early and correctly predicted that the team would sign him.)

Q: Is Boston ready to embrace a player whose best years were spent in purple and gold? -- Edwin (Simi Valley, Calif.)

Shaquille O'Neal
Can Celtics fans embrace a former Laker?

A: I think the LSU connection with Davis can only bring them closer. ... Oh, wait, you're talking about the Lakers.

Although I'll admit Boston fans can be amazingly fickle -- just look at the backlash when former fan favorite Eddie House recently decided to join the Super Friends in Miami -- it's funny how embracing this city can be when that player comes to the Hub. A few thunderous two-handed jams, and Shaquille O'Neal will have the Garden eating out of his hand.

Celtics fans probably don't detest O'Neal based on his Los Angeles days because the two sides never met in a Finals. Some begrudge him more from his Orlando days, including when the Magic swept Boston in the first round of the 1995 playoffs, and in the final game at the Boston Garden, O'Neal (playfully) declared, "The Garden is closed for business."

You hate that player when he is on the other team; you love him when he's on yours.

Q: Come playoff time, where will Shaq fit into the rotation for the Celtics? Will he play big minutes or slow down a team that showed defense is key in May and June? -- JC (Las Vegas)

A: This is the beauty of bringing Shaq in at this time of year. The Celtics now have about 10 months to figure this all out.

Shaq's going to come in with a certain set of expectations but will certainly define his own role with his play on the court. If he proves to be a defensive liability, the Celtics won't hesitate to reduce his role. And if that leads to his being disruptive to the team chemistry, his deal is team-friendly enough that Boston can always cut ties without causing long-term harm to its cap situation. Obviously, the team doesn't want to see it come to that, but it's part of Boston's low-risk, high-reward mentality this offseason.

O'Neal actually benefited from more playing time in Cleveland, and I truly believe his ability to loosen up opposing defenses in a halfcourt set will make him extremely valuable to this team throughout the season.

Q: Now that we have both O'Neals, which one is more capable of covering Dwight Howard when we go up against Orlando? -- Lucas (Milton, Mass.)

A: It really doesn't matter. It's Kendrick Perkins, at least in the postseason when you hope he's back as close to 100 percent as possible. During the regular season, the Celtics don't need to sweat it. Much as the Celtics trotted out Rasheed Wallace as an enforcer in last year's postseason, I can see a similar role for Shaq with Boston. He comes off the bench and uses all six fouls to make Howard's life miserable.

But, again, in the end, we shouldn't worry too much about potential regular-season matchups. The focus for Boston over the first 82 games should be defining roles and building chemistry with the new players. Worry about defensive assignments when the postseason rolls around.

Q: So does the Shaq signing pretty much mean Sheed will not be here under any circumstances? If he does decide to return, there presumably wouldn't be any minutes for him. Is it still reasonable to think you could flip him for a decent player? -- Brad (Concord, N.H.)

A: The fact that Ainge was able to lure Shaq without having to use Wallace's contract is a coup in and of itself. Now the team still boasts the luxury of trying to pluck a backup wing should Wallace truly intend to retire. Heck, if Wallace rides off into the sunset with no compensation (other than luxury tax/salary-cap relief), it's still a decent situation for Boston (though you'd think if he does retire, the team would love to get a body in return because it's otherwise limited to minimum deals).

I wouldn't completely rule out a Wallace return. Put yourself in his position. What hurt Wallace last season? He had to log heavy minutes as a sixth man, then got thrust into a starting role the final two games of the season when he was injured and had nothing left in the tank. That seemingly wouldn't be a problem this season. Let him do the minimum but have him as yet another big off the bench. If anything, I think he might look at the roster and think, "Geez, for $6.3 million, I'll play 12 minutes per game with this crew." Again, an abundance of talented bigs is the best problem to have in the NBA. Boston would undoubtedly boast the most fearsome frontcourt in the league.

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal could be teamed with Kevin Garnett as a starter while Kendrick Perkins recovers from knee surgery.

Q: While I love the Shaq signing, I do have reservations about adding a player with durability issues to a team that has shown a tendency to be somewhat brittle over the last two years. Shaq played in 75 games during a great '08-09 season in Phoenix but four out of the last five years he has appeared in 53, 61, 40 and 59 games. Realistically, how much do you believe Shaq will be able to physically contribute to the Celtics this year? -- Ian (Brewster, Mass.)

A: The thumb injury certainly set him back last season, but the fact that he logged 75 games in 2008-09 is a promising sign. Coming off the bench should lessen the wear and tear on the high-mileage Diesel while also taking some stress off players like Garnett (and Perkins when he returns). If Shaq were coming to Boston and expected to be the starter for 30-plus minutes per game, there'd be reason for concern. I think this is a good situation for him and his durability.

Q: When Kendrick Perkins is out, who is the starting center? Even though Jermaine may get more minutes and finish games, is Shaq going to be the starter? -- KC (Boston)

A: While Jermaine O'Neal already uttered the company line and suggested Perkins is the starter whenever he returns, it's hard to imagine he won't be the starter on opening night. The one question is whether it makes more sense to start Shaq, pairing him with Garnett to start games and thereby limiting his potential to be a defensive liability. What's more, that puts Jermaine O'Neal immediately into the reserve role he'll occupy when Perkins returns (thereby building chemistry from the get-go). But part of the reason Jermaine O'Neal came to Boston was the chance to start at the beginning of the season, and it's hard to imagine the Celtics taking that away unless his performance requires it.

Q: Shaq calling Bosh the "Ru Paul of big men" was hilarious. How much of this signing has to do with his domination of the Heat's new attention seeker? -- Dave (Boston)

A: That comment is more than a year old now, and I doubt either side pays it much mind at this point. But certainly you can make the case that even with Bosh, Miami's biggest weakness is its frontcourt. Having a beefed-up frontcourt can only aid Boston should the two sides cross paths in the postseason.

Q: I love this move for all the reasons you listed (rebounding, physical presence, no more Shelden Williams!), but the one burning question in my mind is: What uniform number is The Big Leprechaun going to wear? He's worn 32, 33 and 34 in his career, and I don't think the C's are taking down any of those numbers just to accommodate Shaq. -- Jonathan (Plymouth, Mass.)

A: Agreed; no one is going to suggest bringing Bill Russell's jersey down from the rafters, but it's too bad No. 6 wasn't available. On his sixth team, O'Neal could have mimicked LeBron James' recent number swap. Or maybe he could have gone for 24 as a nod to old friend Kobe Bryant, but that, too, hangs above the Garden (for Sam Jones).

I thought maybe No. 38 (for his current age) or 40 (for his potential retirement age; he did tell Jimmy Kimmel he's on the 730-day program). Someone pointed out that if you add 32, 33 and 34 together, you get 99, which would seem fitting to one of the league's biggest stars.

One other thought: He did wear No. 13 with Team USA. It would seem fitting given that he's essentially replacing the last guy who wore it: Shelden Williams. He simply might want to snag it now in case Delonte West finds a way back to Boston.

Q: We needed another big guy for sure, and I think we got the best available. Do you agree and think he will fit in well, or do you think someone like Kwame Brown or Josh Boone would have been a better fit? Also does this leave us with any chance of dealing Rasheed Wallace's contract for Rudy Fernandez? -- Alex (Cincinnati)

A: I think the Celtics got the best available player and the one with the most potential to help this team win a title during the 2010-11 season. As for any sort of Wallace-for-Fernandez swap, I think the numbers might make it difficult. Remember that Wallace's salary ($6.3 million next season) is much higher than Fernandez's ($1.25 million), and you'd have to start throwing in other players who could muddy the process. It's not impossible but not exactly easy to facilitate.

Q: When Shaq signs with the Celtics, will he also sign with the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department? -- Brian (Marlborough, Mass.)

A: (chuckles) That seems a fitting way to wrap up the MailShaq.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.