When the Miami Heat come to TD Banknorth Garden, the only lineup question for opening day is: "Who will be starting at center?"
The Celtics' two major offseason pickups were Jermaine and Shaquille O'Neal. The acquisitions were virtual necessities to shore up their height problems that may have cost them the NBA Championship last June.
Both player, regardless of clearly having an all-for-team mentality, want to start. The decision is up in the air, but does it really matter?
Any reasonable coaching staff utilizes the skills of his players to put the best team on the court, at any given point in the game. Yes, sometimes it is for rest, but that is not what I am talking about—you start a player because you believe he is the best guy you can put out at the beginning of the game.
When it come to two comparable players on a team and who gets the start, it may be that the staff likes their intensity leading off in a game; it may also be because they are playing a more physical team or a fast-paced team. This is the philosophy Head Coach Doc Rivers and the Celtics staff will use regarding the O'Neal's.
In this scenario, it is assumed that both players will get a similar degree of minutes.
OK, so Shaq's numbers are the lowest of his career and he does not have the same impact that he used to have—but he still has an impact.
He is still good for a block a game and he can clean up well around the basket. Most importantly, he is a wall; his strength and size will be important against physical teams and help clog the lane. Playing alongside Kevin Garnett will make for an intense tandem down low.
Shaq is understandably slower than he used to be (he was always pretty slow). He doesn't run the court well, so he works better against half-court offenses.
Although similar in their current values as centers in the NBA, the two players' assets are very different.
Jermaine O'Neal is two inches shorter than Shaq, six years younger, and weighs 99 less pounds—this is the reason I would make Jermaine the starter. He is slightly fresher, naturally quicker, and provides greater offensive production.
Shaq can be utilized down the stretch of games and to help lock teams down on the defensive end. This is where things get tricky.
Rivers can utilize Shaq and Jermaine late in games based on their skills for individual possessions. Shaq can be substituted when possible, particularly during timeouts/possession changes. The Hack-a-Shaq rule can be omitted by subbing Jermaine in on offensive possessions. The Celtics will be able to profit from Shaq's benefits, but not get hurt as often by his woes at the line.
Once Kendrick Perkins returns sometime around February, there will be a slew of capabilities and a mountain of in-game decisions to be made regarding the three large centers.
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