Two weeks ago, after a Celtics win over the Detroit Pistons at the TD Garden, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge called a surprise news conference to present good news about veteran center Jermaine O'Neal. The 32-year-old big man had decided not to undergo surgery on his left knee.
On Friday night, Ainge announced a change of plans.
O'Neal opted this week to have the surgery after all — his knee has continued to swell even while he rests it, and finally the C's center decided this week that surgery was inevitable. He went under the knife on Friday afternoon, with team physician Brian McKeon performing an arthroscopy on the knee. He's now looking at six to eight weeks before a return to game shape.
The procedure was meant to probe around the knee and clean it out — Ainge said that McKeon found signs of arthritis and "some loose particles" during the operation, which indicate potential long-term trouble for O'Neal's health.
"Whenever you have arthritis in your knee, and there’s bone on bone, there’s a long-term issue there," Ainge said. "This surgery was not anything to fix him long-term."
Ainge has admitted that when the Celtics signed O'Neal this summer, they were aware of his deteriorating health. With 862 games over 14 seasons on his odometer, the risks were obvious, but Ainge inked a two-year, $12 million deal anyway. The Celtics' exec maintains that the knee issue wasn't that bad this summer, but O'Neal has only declined since then.
"It's worsened," Ainge said of the knee. "He played 70-something games last year with Miami. He played well; he had a good year. But the MRIs now, I think he’s had maybe four or five MRIs, and they’ve worsened since what we saw this summer."
O'Neal wants more than anything to win a championship — he came into the league in 1996 and remains ringless. But the doubts are building as to whether he can contribute this season. The big man has missed 32 of the Celtics' 49 games this season, and he's now likely to be out until April as he recovers from the surgery. As far as being an impact player in the postseason — well, he's cutting it close.
"If we didn't do it now, the window might’ve closed," Ainge said of the surgery. "There was the possibility of that. I think that's why Jermaine wanted to do this. He really wants to contribute to the team in the playoffs, and we think he can. If he can get healthy, he's shown already in the short time he’s been with us and in training camp how good he can be defensively."
In the meantime, with one O'Neal fresh out of the operating room and the other, the 38-year-old Shaquille, recovering from Achilles soreness, the Celtics will have to rely on their next generation of big men. The three youngsters — Kendrick Perkins, Semih Erden and Glen Davis – will hold down the center position.
"We have plenty of big men," Ainge said. "The fact that Perk is back playing and playing well, and seems to be handling the minutes, is good. Semih, he’s certainly capable of picking up some extra minutes there. Baby played 20 [minutes Friday], so we're OK the way we are now."