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Rejuvenated O'Neal can fill void at center

Celtics say they are 'big' enough

The Celtics think Jermaine O’Neal, nearly a year removed from knee surgery, can be a defensive presence and a rebounder. The Celtics think Jermaine O’Neal, nearly a year removed from knee surgery, can be a defensive presence and a rebounder. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 16, 2011
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Last week, the Celtics were dangling the contract of Jermaine O’Neal in a trade for David West. The team was willing to give up its lone experienced center for a two-time All-Star who would have helped bridge the gap between the present and future.

The trade fell through when West accepted a contract worth $2 million more per season with the Pacers, leaving O’Neal and his expiring contract in Boston, coming off an uneven, injury-plagued season.

Is O’Neal a championship-caliber center? He doesn’t have to be, according to the Celtics. He just needs to provide a defensive presence and rebounding with his rejuvenated legs. O’Neal missed 58 games last season with a troublesome left knee, but that knee showed improvement during the postseason, enough to provide encouragement this year.

The Celtics believed they would have both Jermaine and Shaquille O’Neal for two seasons when they signed them last summer. Shaquille played just 37 games and retired. Jermaine limped through the first half of the season and then decided to have knee surgery. Coach Doc Rivers has lauded O’Neal for his conditioning and his energy this training camp.

The Celtics didn’t have the salary-cap space to obtain a frontline center and team president Danny Ainge had to satisfy so many roster needs, so he addressed the frontcourt by signing Greg Stiemsma and Chris Wilcox.

Those are the three centers on the training camp roster. And there is a shortage of centers on the market. Ainge questions the potential impact of signing retread big men.

“I think our league is sort of watered down. I mean, you always find big but you want talented big,’’ Ainge said yesterday as the Celtics prepared to practice at TD Garden. “Everybody always says, ‘Are you big enough?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, we got some big boys.’ The question is can they help us win, and that’s a question with a lot of teams in our league. There’s not a great deal of guys who make a big difference in your winning record that are big. That’s a challenge in our league right now.’’

Although it appears the Celtics have no proven backup to O’Neal in the middle, Ainge said Kevin Garnett, Wilcox, Stiemsma, and training camp invitee Jamal Sampson could fill that role.

Ainge believed the two O’Neals could last two seasons - until the club could chase a cornerstone big man in free agency next summer. But since the Celtics are not on Dwight Howard’s wish list, Ainge will have to come up with another plan.

Shaquille O’Neal yesterday said that Jermaine is fully capable of helping the Celtics reach the Finals, partly because he won’t be opposing legitimate centers every game.

“It’s only two or three big men in the league that you have to worry about,’’ Shaq said. “The game isn’t like when we played, when every team at least had a legitimate big man. Right now there’s Dwight, there’s [Roy] Hibbert, there’s Tyson Chandler, there’s DeAndre Jordan. Who else is there? I think [the Celtics] will be fine. [Jermaine’s] a guy that can play outside and inside. I look for them to be at the top of the East and maybe in the Finals.’’

If Rivers and Ainge get the Jermaine O’Neal who averaged 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds in 22 minutes last postseason, they would be satisfied.

“He just looks great,’’ Rivers said. “It’s amazing the difference watching him this time, [from] last year in camp. Just the fact he knows stuff and he’s comfortable.’’

O’Neal played 70 games two seasons ago with the Heat and 68 the previous season with the Heat and Raptors. He is nearly a year removed from his knee surgery that alleviated pain he had been dealing with for months.

“I’ve got more muscle, definitely stronger, legs significantly stronger than they were last year,’’ he said. “So I’m not a player that’s going to get discouraged about this business and what goes on around me. I have a job and I owe it to my teammates and I owe it to the people here as a Celtic.’’

Ainge said he is always seeking to improve the roster, but he is satisfied with how O’Neal and the upstarts are faring in training camp. Acquiring a difference-making center would mean sacrificing a flexible financial future that Ainge wants to preserve.

“Sometimes you can’t [improve], you are stuck with what you can do,’’ Ainge said. “We are always looking for ways. But I like our roster. We like a lot of players on the roster and there’s some question marks on the roster. But there always is. Sometimes you benefit from not being able to sign aging veteran players because some young guys come in and prove that they’re better anyway. And if there were guys with names here, they wouldn’t get an opportunity and we’re hoping for some of that too.’’

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