The (Un?)intentional Benefits of Signing Shaquille O’Neal

When people list the top GMs in the NBA, Ainge usually makes the cut. Once beleaguered, and perhaps on his way out, previous to assembling Boston’s (now relatively) Big Three, Ainge revitalized his career and the franchise in 2008.

It was the signature moment of Ainge’s career as a GM, but he made another, more subtly great maneuver last summer with systematic devaluing of Rajon Rondo.

Rondo, fresh off the 2009 playoffs in which he scattered Derrick Rose’s mangled remains all over the TD Bank court (Rondo averaged 22-12-10 over 7 games), was poised to get real paid.

A point guard whose electric physical quickness was matched by his cleverness, Rondo’s only true weakness besides his 6’1’’ frame was his anemic shooting from distance.  However Rondo had exhibited a Tony Parker-esque ability to score in the paint despite his size, and was all but assured to improve his jump shot—almost all players do with age (including Parker).

Th 2010 playoffs proved Rajon runs the show as well as almost anybody

Rondo ended up signing for 5 years at $55million, which at the time most people agreed was a good contract for both sides. And it probably was a fair contract for a team’s then third best player.  It’s certainly nice payday for a player who, at 23, assured himself another shot at a big contract when he hits free agency well within his prime at only 28.

What was interesting at the time were the rumors that started floating around the NBA right after the precocious point guard played the series of the post-season. Rondo exhibited a dominant maturity that was reminiscent of Chris Paul or Deron Williams—players who were comfortable running the show at a very young age.

Yet despite his on court displays of heart, teamwork and hustle, Rondo was cast as a locker room liability. Now I don’t know from where exactly these rumors originated, but anyone with internet access can see that Ainge wasn’t exactly sheltering his budding superstar:

“People are trying to make Rondo into a Manny situation,’’ Ainge said a few weeks before signing Rondo. “All I said was that he needs to work on his leadership skills, he can’t be late for a playoff game, and he needs to mature as far as competing on a consistent basis. I’d said all that before.”

Ainge is too smart to know that this quote basically legitimizes the rumors and perceptions he is “dispelling”: I’m not saying Rondo is a gifted head case we put up with because he’s really good, I’m just saying he’s a head case who needs to get better.

Suddenly, despite his sterling play throughout the biggest moments of the playoffs, Rondo’s stock was somehow falling.

Fast forward to the second round of this year’s playoffs and the web is awash with “Rondo is the best point guard in the game” and “Rondo is playing better than LeBron James” because he once again threw up “Today Was a Good Day” stats while selflessly dominating the court and finally gaining the trust of his older teammates.

So how much had Rondo improved (his shooting percentages actually got worse), and how much had we all forgotten how good he was following Ainge’s PR full court press?

Either way, after last season it’s clear that the Celtics got Rondo at a bargain, in no small part due to the brilliant image management of Danny Ainge.

Now, how does Shaquille O’Neal fit into the saga above?

I see the Shaq signing as a point of leverage allowing Ainge to similarly influence the value of Kendrick Perkins as the young center enters free agency in 2011.

How will Perkin's injury and the O'Neal acquisitions affect his free agency?

When the Celts signed Shaq for $1.3 million, they did so to shore up their frontline, but they have also unintentionally saved themselves millions on Kendrick Perkins in the future.

Perkins is unarguably one of the very best defensive big men in the NBA. While he’s a ball stopper offensively and has about as much touch as a double amputee, he sets phenomenal screens (as good as a few assists per game) and is an important element of the Celtic’s culture of toughness and selflessness. He’s definitely in the long term plans of the organization.

Who didn’t immediately say “Welp, that about wraps that up” when Perkins went down in Game 6 of the Finals last year?

This season Perkins enters his contract year coming off of a nasty knee surgery that should put him out of the line up until February. Undoubtedly, Perkins will need even longer to get back to his scowling self. It’s probable that his ability and stats would experienced a dip even without the addition of the artists formally known as O’Neal. But Shaq and Jermaine will eat up major Perk minutes, further reducing Kendrick’s impact on the floor.

Cue the “upset with his playing time” narrative that will inevitably start because Kendrick is generally curt with the media and probably won’t go out of his way to say he’s happy with a reduced role. Ainge is no dummy, and won’t miss the opportunity to passive aggressively explain that Perkins is still getting back to his old self, it’s hard coming off a surgery like that, and that Shaq gives them an “element Perkins doesn’t right now.”

Additionally, Kendrick’s most attention-grabbing ability is stopping Dwight Howard, something Shaq also does pretty well.

Kendrick is probably the better offensive player because he, unlike Shaq, makes the rest of the Celtics better with his devastating and thankless work off the ball. However Shaq will score a few times each game on isolation sets, which many fans and members of the media regard as the be-all-end-all of offensive effectiveness.

So after 2010-11 season, Perkins will be a free agent coming off his worst season in three years. An 8 year veteran and 26 years old, Perkins will be entering his prime poorly positioned to capitalize. If the Celtics can sign him for even $1 million less per year than his true market value because of “concerns” over his knee and attitude—lazy narratives towards which local and national sportswriters will flow like moths to a flame—the C’s could save $4-5 million over the life of his next contract by investing $1.3 million in Shaq.

Is it far fetched to imagine Ainge as a scheming executive excited about boning his young out of what they are worth?

Probably. But the effect, regardless of the intent, will be the same. By signing Shaq, the Celtics almost certainly depressed the long-term cost of keeping Kendrick Perkins.


Follow Beckley on @HoopSpeak!

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