The pro shop at TD Garden experienced a minor crisis last week when a mother and her teenage daughter, clearly a Ray Allen fan, were unable to find a suitably-sized No. 20 Celtics T-shirt among the mass of green. The disappointment on the girl’s face was obvious.
Picking up a shirt emblazoned with No. 7, the mom innocently asked, “What about this ‘O’Neal’ one, honey?”
“No, mom,” the girl replied impatiently, grasping for words to explain to her well-meaning parent that this simply wasn’t acceptable. “Just… no.”
Jermaine O’Neal will begin the second half of the season away from the team, reportedly staying in Boston to see a hand specialist for his aggravated left wrist while his teammates travel to Cleveland for Tuesday’s game against the Cavs. Good riddance, you might say.
Whereas Celtics nation is divided on Rajon Rondo‘s value and whether it’s time to trade Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett or Allen, fans seem to be mostly united in their disgust with O’Neal. The 33-year-old center is having a putrid season by traditional measures, averaging 5.0 points and 5.4 rebounds while foul trouble and age have limited him to just under 23 minutes per game. A formerly gifted offensive presence on the block, O’Neal now has no lift in his creaky knees and doesn’t get enough touches to develop a feel for his once-deadly short jumper.
His jersey is certainly not flying off the shelves at your local fan shop.
O’Neal is not the linchpin to a championship team, but there is a useful player in that No. 7 jersey. Fans who follow the ball when they watch games probably miss the things O’Neal (and to a greater extent Kevin Garnett) does in the back of the Celtics’ defense. This is a chronic fan mistake that leads to the perception that NBA teams don’t play defense. Take your eyes off the ball swinging around the perimeter, and it’s clear there is a lot of defense being played — by teams that know what they’re doing.
Despite being a couple of old men by NBA standards — or maybe even because of it — Garnett and O’Neal are among the best at defensive positioning. Garnett is the most communicative defensive big man around, and O’Neal is consistently in the right place as a help defender. If you don’t believe me, look at the revealing statistics — even with his limited mobility, O’Neal is in the top 10 in blocked shots and is a perennial leader in charges taken. That’s the sign of a guy who knows what he’s doing, even if his body won’t allow him to do the things casual fans will recognize, like spiking an opponent’s shot into the loge boxes.
It would be ideal if Celtics coach Doc Rivers could somehow combine O’Neal’s high defensive IQ with, say, Greg Stiemsma‘s youth. Rivers, who doesn’t have this ability (that we know of), therefore must choose between the veteran who knows what he’s doing and the rookie who so far hasn’t shown that he gets it yet. Stiemsma may learn in time, but with the fourth-oldest roster in the NBA, the Celtics are focused on fielding the best lineup for this year, not on developing a cohesive unit to be able to jell in time for the 2015 playoffs.
(Stiemsma, by the way, averages nearly eight personal fouls per 36 minutes. O’Neal averages a little more than five. So if you think O’Neal fouls a lot, prepare for a thrilling foulfest if Stiemsma gets a bump in minutes.)
Not surprisingly, the Celtics perform much better as a defensive unit when O’Neal is on the floor. The Celtics allow 3.54 fewer points per 100 possessions when O’Neal plays, which is the fourth-best among Celtics regulars behind Pierce, Avery Bradley and Garnett. Two of those three are widely accepted to be among the best defensive players in the NBA, and Pierce is no slouch.
If the Celtics are to undo the five-game losing streak they carried into the All-Star break and make another title run, O’Neal will therefore have to be part of the equation, barring a trade that significantly upgrades the team in other areas. He’s chronically injured, of course, and his 3.2 fouls per game, the eighth-highest rate in the league, severely limits his ability to make a sustained impact. He’s not the trainwreck so many inebriated loudmouths in the upper deck accuse him of being, however.
The saga in the pro shop had a happy ending. A helpful clerk was able to locate the girl’s size, a nomination for Mom of the Year was secured and all was right in the world.
It may take just as much rummaging to find a happy ending for O’Neal and the Celtics. It is there, though, if you know where to look.