November 30, 2007
His best in past?
O'Neal certain he'll return to old form, be central to Pacers' success
By Mike Wells
SEATTLE -- It seemed like just yesterday that Jermaine O'Neal was a perennial All-Star, appearing in national commercials and challenging for league MVP honors.
Three-plus years, even more injuries and numerous trade rumors later, O'Neal's stock, status and numbers have plummeted to levels not seen since he rode the bench in Portland.
O'Neal has missed 73 games the past three-plus seasons due to injuries. His latest setback is to his left knee, which required offseason surgery and has limited him to 10 games this season.
"You're always going to be open to criticism in professional sports," said O'Neal, who is averaging 13.2 points -- 11 fewer than in 2004-05. "I know people are saying I'm not the same player I used to be. I accept it because it is what it is. I've been hurt the last few years. I believe once I get over the hump, and I believe I'm going to get over it, I'm going to be the player I was before."
When O'Neal gets healthy is anybody's guess. He might play tonight at Seattle.
The Pacers are 5-1 without him this season, leading many to wonder if they would be better off without him. (They are 84-81 with him in the past three-plus seasons, 44-44 without.) Several scouts who have attended recent games suggested they are better without him because his style doesn't mesh with coach Jim O'Brien's up-tempo offense.
O'Brien and the Pacers adamantly dismiss such talk as nonsense.
"This style will help his game," Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said. "He is a great athlete. The halfcourt style doesn't appeal to his athleticism. When his leg settles down, he can get back to playing his old way."
The Pacers have maintained all along that they are better when they run, but the numbers suggest they have had a difficult time mixing O'Neal's low-post scoring with their new approach. O'Neal is second on the team in assists, but the offense still slows down to get him involved.
Without him, they are averaging 108 points and have knocked off playoff teams Dallas, Denver and Washington.
With him, they have averaged 99.8 points and once lost six consecutive games. They've been held to 90 or fewer points five times this season. All five times O'Neal played, and the Pacers are 1-4 in those games.
"We've made strides as a team, but those strides will be even greater when Jermaine gets back," said O'Brien, who is coaching his first scoring post player. "We run the same offense with or without him. We run the same defense with or without him."
O'Neal spent the summer rehabbing from arthroscopic surgery to remove loose cartilage in his left knee and getting into shape for O'Brien's offense.
He hit the first of several snags when he collided with teammate Shawne Williams in practice. Then he slipped during a preseason game. The swelling in his knee caused him to sit out most of the preseason
"I lost some confidence in my knee," O'Neal said. "I've never lost confidence in my abilities as a basketball player. That will never happen. It's all about my knee. I kind of underestimated my recovery time and the difficult part of having surgery. I thought at 29 years old I could bounce back and do things on the run. My body let me know that I can't do that anymore."
O'Neal, who has led the Pacers in scoring the past six seasons, has only been a shade of his former self this season. He lacks explosiveness to the basket. He has a hard time shooting over defenders, evident by the number of times he has had his shot blocked. O'Neal has yet to score 20 points and he's shooting a career-worst 39 percent.
His lack of production hasn't gone unnoticed.
Nuggets coach George Karl, never one to bite his tongue, earlier called Danny Granger the Pacers' top scoring option and referred to Mike Dunleavy as the "glue" to the team.
O'Neal sees validity in the criticism.
"The wear and tear wore on me mentally because I couldn't move," O'Neal said. "I haven't played anywhere near the level I'm used to playing at. That was the real reason for the team, the training staff and I got together and said I needed to step away from this, because it got more frustrating than helpful."
O'Neal is signed through 2009-10. He has the option to become a free agent after the season, but doing so would mean walking away from the remaining $43.345 million he is owed in hopes he could make more elsewhere.
O'Neal isn't concerning himself with the future, except to deliver a message to critics who insist his career is declining.
"I'm not going to be broken down," he said. "Do I believe I'm going to return to my form? Absolutely. I truly believe I'm going to return to my level."
Call Star reporter Mike Wells at (317) 444-6053.
I honestly hope he is right, but has there ever been a player that didn't think they could come back and compete? Oh, and say good-bye to any trde value JO had with this out in the open (as if GM's didn't already know) Now the PUBLIC pressure will not allow JO to be accepted in any package deals either IMO.