Friday, August 6, 2010

Luck of the Irish: Shaquille O’Neal Joins Boston Celtics for Shot at Title

 
The Boston Celtics added a new face (albeit a familiar one) to their team.

It’s a face that Celtics fans in the past probably weren’t all that thrilled to see. This is because the face I’m referring to belongs to Shaquille O’Neal.

For a good part of his illustrious career, the “Big Diesel” as he’s known to his fans, played for one of Boston’s most hated rivals, the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. And despite the fact Shaq’s Lakers never faced the Celtics in the NBA Finals like the Showtime Lakers of the 80’s, that old time rivalry still infused the more recent teams with bitter feelings toward each other.

Simply put, no self-respecting Boston fan would have ever done anything but root against those Los Angeles teams O’Neal played for.

Because of those years in La-La Land, Shaq is one of the most familiar athletes on the planet. His endorsement deals cover the gamut of merchandise, from books, to clothes and shoes, and even to video games.

From his beginnings with the Orlando Magic, shattering backboards and teaming up with “Penny” Hardaway, he was seen as one of the most lovable characters in the NBA. This led to some “regrettable” movie roles, as well as his dipping his toes in the rap record industry (again, regrettably). Yet, regardless of his failures in those mediums, he was still loved by his fans, as his quotes and playful interaction with his fans endeared him.

Not so in Boston. As stated above, Celtics fans saw all things from “Lakerland” as the enemy, even the lovable Shaq Daddy.

Yet, that attitude the Boston fans had toward “The Big Aristotle” as he’s known to his fans began to be the view held by many throughout the land once he first went to the Miami Heat to win a title with Dwyane Wade, and then was eventually traded to the Phoenix Suns, and then traded one last time to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Somewhere along the way he wasn’t the most lovable or loved player in the NBA anymore.

A lot of this likely had to do with his eroding skills, but a great deal of it also had to do with the way he was being perceived because of comments he made about teams and teammates he’d formerly played with, including Dwyane Wade.

Wade, who he’d once called “Wonder Boy” in a subtle attempt to belittle Dwyane’s abilities, along with LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and even another former teammate whose talents he’d tried to disparage, Kobe Bryant, were all being shown more love and respect than “Superman”.

When he’d finished the 2009-10 season, many considered him “too old” for the game, and unneeded.

I myself never understood this, for even at 38, there are plenty of teams that could still use an active big body like his in the paint. In my opinion, even with his skills severely diminished, he’s still a great deal more talented than most of the centers in the NBA.

Apparently the Boston Celtics agreed with my assessment, as they signed Shaq to a two-year deal to join forces with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo.

After Kendrick Perkins was injured during the NBA Finals, and it was learned he would be out for a significant portion of next season recovering, the Celtics were desperately in need of a big man. Add to their plight the fact Rasheed Wallace had decided to retire, and it was easy to see they needed help in the middle.

The first thing they did was sign O’Neal. Not Shaq, but former Miami Heat player Jermaine O’Neal. With Jermaine on the roster, they felt confident they could get by till Perkins return, and that’s telling in regard to the Shaq signing. They were not in any way shape or form desperate any longer.

Yet, they still signed Shaq.

Why? Because, as stated above, Shaq is a great active big body who is (even with his skills eroding) better than most big men in the NBA.

Truth be told, I think most would agree that had Boston had the Big Diesel on their team when Perkins went down in the Finals, O’Neal would have easily been able to contain Andrew Bynum and/or even Pau Gasol to some degree. Rasheed Wallace was pretty good stepping in for Kendrick, but Shaq would have prevented the Lakers from dominating so much on the boards and the Celtics, in my opinion, would have won the series.

Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck seems to agree with that thinking, as he recently stated, “If we get to another Game 7 down the line, I’m sure we will be glad we have Shaq on the team.”

Now, signing Shaq gives Boston five players who are above 30 years of age, all of whom will likely be Hall-of-Famers. Some may believe that is to their detriment. I, on the other hand don’t think it will hinder Boston whatsoever.

I believe it doesn’t matter what their ages are, because when the game is on the line, they can all still dominate and destroy you if they feel it.

Adding Shaq to the mix with the group of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo is going to make the Celtics an instant challenger to the “supposed” dominance the Miami Heat and their “Three Kings” will enjoy in the NBA Eastern Conference.

Add Jermaine O’Neal to the mix, along with Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Avery Bradley, and the eventual return of Kendrick Perkins, and Boston is going to have a very intimidating frontcourt this coming season. I think Celtics coach Doc Rivers is probably just as excited as most Boston fans, as is evidenced by his recent statement:

“I am very excited. Adding a player like Shaq is a major plus and it fills a void for our team. He’s a real nice piece of the puzzle and he will complement us in where we want to go this coming season.”

I think it’s easy to see that he’s finding his decision to return to coach the Celtics is paying off. I don’t think he’d want to miss out on the following season for anything, since he’s going to have probably the best shot since Boston first formed the “Big 3” to win a title this coming year.

Sure, the Heat are considered the favorite by many, but Boston just might really be the team to beat this coming season. If Miami can gel quickly they’ll be formidable, but if it takes them a little while to get it all together, the veteran leadership and experience of the Celtics could win out in the end; at least this next year.

I think Rajon Rondo and other young players for the Celtics will probably enjoy learning from Shaq as well. I’m sure he has plenty of wisdom he can dole out to them, and probably won’t be in the least bit afraid to dispense it in his usual jovial and playful manner.

For his part, Shaq seems ready to take on any role he is called on for in order to help Boston return to glory. As he said, “I am honored to be joining the Celtics. I have played against Paul, Ray, Kevin, Rajon, and Jermaine for many years, and it will be great to be able to call them teammates. I cannot wait to get to Boston to get started in pursuit of another championship.”

Of course, it’s been three years since Boston won a title. They were close to winning one last season, but in the end faltered in that quest. I’m sure Boston management hopes Shaq is the final piece to the puzzle that will give them what they need this coming year to bring home another Larry O’Brien Trophy.

As Celtics president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, had to say, “It is not every day that you can add a player of Shaquille’s caliber to your team. His past experience speaks for itself and we believe that he is a great fit for our roster.”

Now that O’Neal has officially joined the Celtics, he’s getting a lot of love from many fans who formerly looked upon him as the enemy. There’s even a contest trying to come up with his newest nickname, with “The Big Shaqrock” (referring to Shamrock) and “The Big Leprechaun” leading the votes so far.

One famous fan of the Celtics, Boston’s own David “Big Papi” Ortiz who plays for the Red Sox, seems to love that Shaq is now in Boston. As he said excitedly during batting practice before a game against the Cleveland Indians, “Hey, Shaq is here!”

He definitely is, and it’s probably going to take many a while to get used to seeing him in a Celtics uniform like in the photoshopped picture above.

Yet, there was a small moment there when even Shaq himself probably thought he wouldn’t be signed by anyone, and that he would never play another NBA game again.

I guess the luck of the Irish was with him, and he now has a #36 Boston Celtics uniform to don, as he goes forward, bleeding green proudly.