Shaquille O’Neal Must Learn to Serve As Role Player in Deep Celtics Frontcourt

Shaquille O'Neal Must Learn to Serve As Role Player in Deep Celtics Frontcourt Nine.

That's the total number of times, in the entirety of his 18-year career as an NBA center, that Shaquille O'Neal has come off the bench. Just nine.

Shaq has played 1,170 career games, logged 41,166 minutes, and made 16 postseason runs with five different teams on top of that. He's been in 15 All-Star games and six NBA Finals.

And he's only come off the bench nine times.

Shaq has always been the big man on campus, both literally and figuratively. He's always been the guy jumping for the opening tip and the guy manning the low post in crunch time. That's his role, and he doesn't know any other.

But in Boston, he might be forced to find one.

Shaq arrives in the Hub as the second-best center in town. When everyone's healthy, he's the third-best. Jermaine O'Neal is younger, hungrier and frankly better than the senior Shaquille, and Kendrick Perkins, who's on the shelf for now with a knee injury, will be back before the Celtics head down the home stretch next season.

Shaq is one of the most talented, physically gifted big men ever to play the game. But it's not just about talent — at the highest level, basketball is about making the talent fit. The best fit in the Celtics' starting five is a defense-first center who can use size, agility and toughness to protect the rim and the glass.

Jermaine O'Neal, at all of six years, seven months and seven days younger than Shaquille, is that guy. Against the league's best big men — Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bogut and the like — Jermaine gives the Celtics the best interior presence they can muster without Perk. Shaq will best serve the Celtics off the bench. He's a role player with a clearly defined role: Post scoring, offensive rebounding, and an extra six fouls to give. He's got to be careful not to want anything more than that.

When Shaq arrived in Boston on Monday, he came in thinking the challenge before him was to help the Celtics to another championship. That may be true, but it's also putting the cart far before the horse.

Titles are won in June. That's 10 months away — team chemistry and unity are built in August and September. And at the moment, that's the greatest challenge facing Shaq. He's got to set aside his ego and do what's best for his team. Even if that doesn't mean starting.

Achieving that championship-level selflessness is part of the career arc for any great player. When Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen landed in Boston three summers ago, Paul Pierce did it — he had been the captain and The Truth for nearly a decade, but when two future Hall of Famers joined him, he forgot about himself. He made it about the team.

Garnett and Allen had been in similiar situations — both had been the lone star on a subpar team, and it was their job to carry the load themselves. They quickly left that mind-set by the wayside.

It's up to Shaq to do the same. The Celtics will be a better team if he can.

Shaq is still a good player, and he still has a lot to offer the Celtics despite his age and diminished skill set. But he can only do it if he's honest with himself about his own limitations.

Shaquille O'Neal has taken the floor as a starter for 1,161 games in his NBA career. He can still be a champion without ever starting another.

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