Ed. note: Now that the Mavs have re-signed Brendan Haywood and the Celtics have signed Jermaine O’Neal, consider this a comparative piece explaining the Mavs’ choice. Haywood was the better option all along for a number of reasons, and if it came down to Dallas choosing between which center to pursue, they made the right call.
There is no poetry to Brendan Haywood’s game. Many of his moves lack polish, and he isn’t easily captured in cliché. Haywood is simply an effective individual defender and a capable finisher at the 5 who is somehow unspectacular enough to live comfortably under the radar and skilled enough to be a vital part of the Mavs’ off-season plans. Regardless of what you’ve read elsewhere, Haywood is the option at center. Any reasonable alternative (Chandler, Biedrins, Jefferson, Shaq, etc.) save from Jermaine O’Neal would be a clear defensive downgrade, and none of those players can boast Brendan’s two-way utility.
That’s why it warms my heart that the Mavs are now linked to the fairer O’Neal, even if he’s not quite the catch that Brendan is. Their defensive abilities are certainly comparable, but what worries me most about Jermaine are his offensive delusions and relatively inferior rebounding. Last season, O’Neal averaged about six more FGAs per 36 minutes than Haywood, despite the fact that the two are roughly equal in terms of their offensive efficiency. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be rather important for O’Neal to not see his roles on the Mavs and Heat as congruent. Miami’s dearth of scorers last season afforded Jermaine an opportunity to be more of a focal point, whereas he would fall down a few pegs on the Mavs’ scoring ladder.
If not for a few rather glaring asterisks on O’Neal’s application, he could be considered Haywood’s equal. Jermaine is 31 going on 60, and heavy minutes, significant usage, and a long NBA career have sent O’Neal’s athletic abilities through a meat processing plant. Even though Haywood isn’t likely to improve from here on out, his career is at least moving laterally, which in this case functions as an advantage. O’Neal’s injuries are also a bit of a concern, as he’s played 70+ games just twice in his last seven seasons (Haywood played five 70+ game seasons over that same span).
However, the most frightening footnote of all — fair or unfair — is O’Neal’s latest playoff performance. Jermaine completely disappeared against Boston’s defense in the first round, when Miami needed offense more than ever. Dwyane Wade desperately needed some kind of help to make the series competitive, but Jermaine could only manage 4.2 points and 5.6 rebounds on 20.5% shooting. In case you’re curious, that’s good for a 2.5 PER. The Celtics were operating at a special level all throughout the playoffs, but that’s the same level at which the Mavs hope to compete. If Jermaine couldn’t even manage to be competent against the turned backs of the Celtics while all eyes were on Wade, would he really be a wise choice for the Mavs’ starting center?
Haywood was merely himself during the Mavs’ abbreviated postseason run, and made three more field goals than O’Neal (12 to 9) despite taking about half of the attempts (21 to 44). He didn’t step outside himself, defended well when given the opportunity, and played the victim almost as well as Rodrigue Beaubois. There should never have been any dispute over who was Dallas’ rightful starting center, yet Brendan was denied both minutes and opportunities on the basis of some ridiculous criterion. It didn’t stop him from posting a 19.3 PER over six playoff games, but Haywood was clearly restricted from making his full impact by forces outside his control.
A Haywood-O’Neal center tandem would be fantastic for Dallas, but it’s admittedly a bit of a long-shot. The Mavs and Jermaine were both reportedly interested in a union, but since, the Celtics have emerged as the front-runners to sign O’Neal. On top of that, Miami is a legitimate option for Brendan Haywood if they fail to entice LeBron James (luckily, there doesn’t seem to be any other serious competition). LeBron would eat up the cap space with Haywood’s name on it, and while his joining with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would be the bane of the league at large, it would be a positive development for the Mavs. With no one left to bid against, Dallas would likely be able to come to reasonable terms with Brendan, and the starting five for next season would be secured. Throw in a coup for Jermaine and good return on Dampier, and the Mavs have the potential to be one of the most complete teams in basketball.
UPDATE 11:59 AM CST: According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Jermaine O’Neal has agreed to sign with the Boston Celtics. Well, it was fun while it lasted, folks.