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Big risk, big reward

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 4, 2010

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Shaq, too?

Let the jokes begin.

Instead of a bench, the Celtics will have a couch. No, make that easy chairs and hassocks. All team meals will be Early Bird Specials. A typical player anecdote begins, ‘‘So I said to Dr. Naismith ...’’

The 2010-11 Boston Celtics won’t be a basketball team. They will be a walking hoop museum. Among them, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Jermaine O’Neal have a combined total of 71 years of service, good for 5,655 regular-season and playoff games and 200,371 minutes. They have combined for 51 All-Star Game appearances. They have 10 All-NBA third-team selections, eight second-team selections, and 12 first-team selections. If honors and plaques were all that mattered, we could book the parade right now, Miami Heat or no Miami Heat.

It goes without saying, of course, that they also lead the league in O’Neals.

But seriously, folks ...

Danny Ainge certainly has guts and imagination. What if someone had told you at the conclusion of the 2006-07 season that, by the summer of 2010, among the people they’d have seen wearing a Celtics uniform would be Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, and let’s not forget Nate Robinson? I know I would have said something like, ‘‘Sure, and the next thing you’ll tell me is that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh will all be playing for the same team.’’

But how many times must I remind you that in the matter of Truth vs. Fiction, you’d always be wise to take Truth, plus the points, every time?

Those two highly unlikely scenarios have indeed come to pass.

Yup, Shaq is now ours. If the Heat didn’t exist in their current form, the Celtics would be the most talked-about team in the league.

What the Celtics are getting is a 38-year-old, 7-foot-1-inch, 300-and-whatever-pound guy who still commands a great deal of attention once he is passed the basketball in the low post. That’s where he operates, and don’t you forget it.

Shaq never got the memo that seems to have been passed around to just about every other big man, be he domestic or foreign, during the past 20-some years, said memo informing those large fellows that it was no longer necessary to perform with one’s back to the basket. Hence the onslaught of 7-foot jump shooters with zero pivot moves.

Shaq is a pleasant exception. Here is a big man — no, a BIG man — who walks, struts, flexes, and generally acts as a big man. Shaq’s idea of great fun has always been to plant that large posterior into the chest of a defender, back the hapless foe in the direction of the basket as far as he could, and then dunk in the guy’s face. That, plus a reasonably broad assortment of little banks and turnarounds, is how he has become the second-best percentage shooter of all-time. That’s how Shaq came into the league and that’s how he will leave it.

Even at his advanced age, Shaq is still an effective scorer. He averaged 12 points and 6.7 rebounds in 23 minutes a game last year for Cleveland. In the 24 games prior to Feb. 25, when he injured his thumb against the Celtics and missed the remainder of the regular season, he scored in double figures 22 times. In fact, he was coming off back-to-back 20-point games. He still knows what he’s doing in that low post.

The free throws? The free throws are the free throws; there’s nothing much you can do about that. You have to live with Hack-a-Shaq tactics late in games.

The downside is when the ball changes hands. Things are fine if Shaq is guarding someone close to the basket. The problem is that the NBA has become a pick-and-roll league, and it’s a common belief that Shaq is the worst pick-and-roll defender there is. And that Kendrick Perkins is one of the very best. The Celtics have been built on defense the past three years, and figuring out how to factor in Shaq is something that will occupy a great deal of Lawrence Frank’s time now that he is inheriting the Tom Thibodeau role.

So it’s a plus-minus/risk-reward situation. There will be a large element of Shaq giveth vs. Shaq taketh away to the story, with the Celtics gambling that there will be an advantage leaning toward the giveth.

Remember, always, that so much of what transpires in team sport depends on context. By signing Shaq, the implication on the part of the Celtics is that they have the proper mix of teammates to maximize Shaq’s assets while minimizing his deficiencies.

Much will depend on Shaq’s attitude, naturally. It has to be humbling for him to know that not many teams were interested in his services, just as it must be humbling for him to be playing for relative chump change, i.e. the veteran’s exception, in the $1.4 million range.

He went to Cleveland billed as the final piece of the puzzle (leading him to proclaim that he had come in to get ‘‘a ring for the king’’), but now he comes here as sort of an insurance policy. ’Tis said you can’t have too many starting pitchers, nor can you have too many ‘‘bigs,’’ as Doc Rivers likes to say. Shaq is here to be a generic ‘‘big,’’ albeit one with a glittering résumé.

Boston could be an ideal place for him to spend his sunset years.

Surely Red Auerbach, who once upon a time provided late-career employment for the likes of Clyde Lovellette and Wayne Embry, would have approved of the idea.

Shaq should like it here. He will undoubtedly plug himself into the tradition, and he will get himself around town. The ‘‘Names and Faces’’ folks will be on constant alert (the folks at Symphony Hall should book him for a ‘‘Night Before Christmas’’ Pops reading right now).

All that aside, look at it this way: The Celtics find themselves in need of a big body. Should it be Semih Erden? Or should it be Shaquille O’Neal? If you need to think it over, then perhaps you really don’t care about the subject in the first place.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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