Recruited to beef up a Celtics frontcourt exposed on the NBA's biggest stage last season, Jermaine O'Neal and Shaquille O'Neal arrived in Boston this summer uttering all the right things about their roles, including the fact that they'd both be happy as reserves once Kendrick Perkins returned from offseason knee surgery.
Then Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge made a cryptic comment about Perkins having to "compete" for his starting job, raising more than a few eyebrows among those who simply assumed Perkins, once healthy, would reassume his spot in Boston's familiar starting five.
Just hours after Shaq met Boston reporters for the first time last month, Ainge said in a conference call that, "[The addition of Jermaine O'Neal and Shaq] does take pressure off of Kendrick. He has a very bright future and he knows we think very highly of him. We're not certain, though, when he [will be] 100 percent and this allows us to be patient with Kendrick. At the same time, I'm sure he's going to be worried and nervous since we are going to win games with this front line even when he's not playing. I'll be sitting with and talking with Kendrick throughout this whole process and hopefully he can just focus on getting himself healthy and competing for his job back. "
Competing for his job back? Can a basketball player lose his job to injury?
For his part, Perkins took the comment in stride. Showing maturity beyond his 25 years, he told The Boston Globe: "I don't see [Ainge's comments as] threatening me at all. I gotta work hard. I know I gotta fight to get back to where I was. It's no problem with me. Hard work is not a problem."
The question remains: Should Perkins have to compete for his starting role once he's able to return to action?
We asked our panel of 18 writers from eight of our favorite Celtics blogs to weigh in with their thoughts on Perkins and his reintegration into the Boston lineup. Two prevalent themes emerged: 1) Most believe Perkins has already earned that starting role and simply needs to prove he's back to 100 percent of the player he was before the injury; and 2) Celtics coach Doc Rivers has done a fantastic job of drilling home the fact that Boston's starting five is undefeated in the postseason when all the players are healthy, as nearly all of our Celtics observers referenced in their response.
Here's my take: As I wrote in the Celtics Mailbag last month, I don't think Perkins will necessarily have to "earn" or "compete" for his job so much as simply "ease" his way back in. Ainge's comments might have come off a bit strong, but I interpreted them as a suggestion that we simply shouldn't expect Perkins to be cleared for action on, say, Feb. 1, and be in the starting lineup that night. Even if he's able to practice and ramp up his recovery in the gym, it's still going to take some game action for Perkins to find his game. So it probably wouldn't hurt to bring him off the bench for, say, 5-10 games. Borrowing from last season's mantra, as long as the Celtics can get him healthy and reintegrated before mid-April when the playoffs arrive, that's just fine as well. Two things to keep an eye on moving forward: 1) If the team displays overwhelming success without Perkins, how does the team then address his reintegration? Let's just say it would have been easier for the Patriot to re-insert Drew Bledsoe if Tom Brady didn't go 11-3 as a starter during the 2001 regular season. 2) How does this injury and reintegration affect Perkins' contract situation as he's set to be a free agent after the season? Could this "competition" talk simply help bring down the price Boston would have to pay to lock him up? After all, neither of the O'Neals is a long-term solution.
Check out our panelists' responses below:
Nope, Perkins shouldn't have to earn his starting job. He's proven what he can give. And not only that, Doc has made it a point to say over and over again: "This starting five STILL has not lost a playoff series." You think he's going to mess with that? The only thing Perk will have to prove is that he's healthy. Once he's 100 percent, he's the starting center.
Perk has "earned" his spot over the past several seasons. Doc has said several times that, when healthy, his starting five is undefeated in any playoff series, so I doubt he sways from this. Besides, this is all public contract negotiating by Ainge, akin to the "maturity" comments he made about Rondo last summer. Perk is in a contract year and the one silver lining about his injury could be that the Celtics have some leverage when re-signing him. I'm sure Perk's eyes opened wide at the deal Brendan Haywood received this summer (6 years, $55 million, or the same dollar amount as Rondo, with one more year), so the Celtics would be wise to negotiate with him right now. True, big men are rare in the NBA, and when the new Big Three Era finally ends in two years, Perk will be essential to the next rebuilding process.
I don't think Perkins is good enough to not have to fight for a starting job. If the Celtics are playing great basketball at the time of Perkins' return, why would they change up the lineup? I'm all for inserting Perkins back in the rotation, as I think he is one of the best low-post defenders in the league, but that doesn't mean I hand him the starting spot back. The Celtics brought in two centers capable of starting, so they won't automatically sit them once Perkins comes back. But the situation with Perk is very interesting. The Celtics got him for a pretty reasonable price -- four years for a little under $17 million -- and it will be interesting to see which direction Perkins goes in this time around. If Perkins wants to start when he returns and the Celtics have other plans, he could hold a grudge come free agency time. On the other hand, if the Celtics keep Perkins happy, they may get another reasonable deal out of it.
Kendrick Perkins will have to earn his starting job back in the sense that he will definitely have to prove he can be the defender and rebounder that he was before he suffered his torn right ACL. Once he's proclaimed "healthy" by the medical staff, the Celtics obviously won't just throw him back out there and say, "Be your old self again." They'll work him back slowly, playing him in very limited minutes at first, while building him back up in time for the playoffs. It would be foolish for the Celtics to simply hand the starting center job back to a player coming off of the first major surgery of his career, especially when they have two serviceable backups available whose respective contributions should allow the Celtics the freedom to work Perk back into the rotation at their desired pace.
Perkins has earned his starting job through years of hard work and team-first play. However, he should be eased back into the rotation, regaining his starting spot only when he is fully healthy.
Perkins has earned that starting job already. As long as neither Shaq nor Jermaine blows the NBA out of the water (and I can't see that happening), Perk's starting spot should be secure. After all, the Celtics have never lost a playoff series with that starting five.
The Celtics' five starters have been together since the start of the 2008 championship season and it should stay that way unless Perkins comes back still showing signs of injury. Remember, this unit still hasn't been beat in a seven-game series when healthy.
Short answer: No. Longer answer is that Rivers has hammered the "This starting five has never lost a playoff series" for two seasons. If he went back on that sentiment now, I think there would be some internal issues that spring up and the C's really don't need any distractions going into the season. If everyone knows their role going in, there can't -- or hopefully won't --- be any in-fighting come February.
I feel no position on a starting line is entitled to any player. Of course, Perkins is considered our starting center. The spot is reserved for him. I do not feel, however, that wins should be sacrificed for a role that some feel Perk is entitled to. Hard work and friendly competition is good with any team. Glen Davis has shown, year after year, that he plays far better when there's a guy chasing his minutes. Perk is different, of course, but I think we all acknowledge that he isn't just going to lace up and jump right into it. All of Celtics Nation learned a lot about injured knees in 2009-10 and I think that even fans are cautious to just grant back 30+ minutes per game to Perkins.
Kendrick Perkins needs to prove he can play at a level higher than what the O'Neals can provide. This could be a tall order for Perk, as his already primitive offensive game will appear absolutely prehistoric next to a pair of the best low-post scorers of the last decade. No doubt, Perk's defense will quickly round into form, but his often-vanishing effort on the glass is of much greater concern. A man of Perk's size should be a far better rebounder than he showed in 2009-10, and taking that area as a place to improve would be wise as he rehabilitates from his knee injury.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.