Let me get this out of the way first: I once considered Jermaine O’Neal soft, but now I admire his toughness. He returned from surgery last season, played his ass off in the postseason, and charged on against the Knicks and Heat despite a broken wrist. There will always be a spot in my heart for O’Neal because I understand how much he sacrificed. He genuinely has one goal, and that’s to help the Celtics win another championship.
That being said, O’Neal has been awful. He’s a defensive-minded center who can’t make rotations quick enough. He’s shooting 44.7 percent from the field, even though every shot he takes is a layup or a wide open, short jumper. His rebounding rate is lower than Paul Pierce’s. He’s left the bench for the locker room due to injury at least three or four times already. He’s a complete non-factor on offense and his defense hasn’t been enough to overshadow the fact that Boston’s playing 4-on-5 every time he’s on the court. He scored in doubles figures once and hasn’t scored higher than eight points otherwise. He hasn’t rebounded in double digits once this season. In fact, he hasn’t grabbed more than SEVEN boards once. He’s old and he’s creaky and I’m entirely worried that he’s not going to improve as the season wears on. At this stage, five points, four rebounds and a couple blocks per game might be all Jermaine O’Neal can provide.
And you know what’s the worst part? The Celtics don’t have a better option to insert in the starting lineup. Greg Stiemsma has shown flashes of blocking brilliance, but he got Shaq’d by Ian Mahinmi last night during one play, a play that was indicative of Stiemsma’s low-post strength (or lack thereof). Chris Wilcox has given the Celtics nothing. Brandon Bass finishes games, but if he started them, the bench would never score a single point. And there’s NOBODY ELSE. Without researching every team in the league, I imagine the Celtics have gotten less from their centers than any other squad. The Celtics centers haven’t even given hard fouls.
I watched the Dallas Mavericks last night and I began the game thinking how far they’d fallen from Tyson Chandler to the Brendan Haywood/Ian Mahinmi duo. But you know what? Haywood and Mahinmi would be Boston’s two best centers. At least they can rebound. Hell, Haywood had more rebounds last night (11) than O’Neal, Wilcox, Bass and Stiemsma combined (9). And Mahinmi’s shooting percentage equals Jermaine O’Neal’s plus Marquis Daniels’.
Want to know why Rivers thinks the Celtics aren’t tough anymore? Want to know why they seem to lose the rebounding battle consistently? Because they’re getting absolutely nothing from their centers. It’s a problem that starts with Jermaine O’Neal, but it runs a lot deeper than that.