For clarity's sake, Jermaine O'Neal was not demanding or lobbying for a trade last week when he responded to a fall-from-ahead loss in Dallas by saying: "If I can't take this team to another level, I truthfully believe we should go our separate ways."
O'Neal was merely repeating a sentiment he's been sharing privately with Pacers management for a while now. He has an arrangement with Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird to sit down at season's end to make a joint assessment on their shared future.
No one in Indy is expecting any O'Neal action between now and the Feb. 22 trade deadline. "We're going to play this season out and [then] see what happens," he says.
The Pacers don't even want to think about a move that big before the offseason anyway, still believing that steadiness in the backcourt -- if they can ever find it -- will make the most of the O'Neal-Al Harrington-Danny Granger frontcourt in an up-for-grabs East. As for O'Neal's play, Rick Carlisle has been thrilled. Especially with JO's defense and board work, which have never been better.
For his part, O'Neal insists that he wants to stay a Pacer, going so far as to tell Reggie Miller recently that he doesn't want to leave until he wins the title that always eluded Miller's Pacers.
"I want to do something he didn't have the opportunity to do," O'Neal said. "I can be totally happy not making another All-Star game as long we win a championship."
Yet if the Pacers suffer another early playoff exit, after four first-round eliminations in the past six seasons, chances are they'll be looking for a shakeup as much as O'Neal, who has the right -- in the unlikely event he's prepared to leave $23 million on the table -- to become a free agent after the 2007-08 season at age 29.