O'Neal's impact to remain mystery until the fall
From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
July 8, 2008 at 9:45 PM EDT
TORONTO — This afternoon the Toronto Raptors will introduce Jermaine O'Neal, their newly acquired centre.
Who exactly he is and what he will bring to the franchise will likely remain a mystery until the season starts in November.
Is O'Neal an injury-plagued fading star destined to be a drag on the bottom line? Or a still potent veteran determined to extend the prime of his career and help the Raptors win their first playoff series in six years?
Trainer Joe Abunassar, who has been working with O'Neal daily in Las Vegas since May 15, bets on the latter as O'Neal attempts to rebound from a lost season and a "best thing for everyone" divorce from the Indiana Pacers.
"He's a world-class player and an unbelievable guy," said Abunassar, who runs an elite summer training program in Las Vegas for a who's who of NBA stars. "He's like Kevin Garnett that way, just a pleasure to be around."
The scouting report only gets better from there. It needs to as Raptors president Bryan Colangelo tries to steer the franchise back into the mix in the Eastern Conference after a desultory 41-41 season.
In trading T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic and the No. 17 pick in the draft (Roy Hibbert), Colangelo has staked the Raptors' short-term future on the belief that a revitalized O'Neal will team with Chris Bosh to give Toronto one of the premier front lines in the NBA.
But if O'Neal continues to battle injuries — he's played more than 51 games only once in the past four seasons — or fails to fit in alongside Bosh, the Raptors will have little choice but to count the days until his massive salary comes off the books after the 2009-10 season and they can begin to rebuild.
For what it's worth, opinions around the NBA are fairly uniform: If O'Neal can regain his health and maintain his enthusiasm in his 13th NBA season, few question his ability to have an impact on a game.
"The thing about Jermaine is there have been two issues over the past couple of seasons," said one front-office staffer. "One has been injuries; the other has been the circumstances around the Pacers that impacted everyone on the team. The bottom line with Jermaine is that he's an all-star-calibre player, and if he's healthy enough, he's still young enough to be an all-star-calibre player again."
O'Neal's injury problems have been varied: torn groin muscles, shoulder problems, sprained ankles and most recently a balky knee that never stabilized last year after surgery for cartilage problems after the 2006-07 season.
The Pacers' problems have been all over the map, as well. There was the brawl in Auburn Hills, for which O'Neal was suspended 25 games for punching a fan in the melee, and a number of off-court incidents — some involving guns and drugs.
O'Neal wasn't involved, but their frequency, critics say, threw into question his leadership abilities. Defenders point out that O'Neal was trying to lead a team that featured noted problem cases Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley.
With a seven-year, $120-million (U.S.) contract, O'Neal became a focal point for fan discontent as the Pacers missed the playoffs the past three seasons. His occasional pleas to be traded didn't help the cause.
Complicating matters was that O'Neal and Pacers president Larry Bird are less than close. The perception is that Bird used former coach Isiah Thomas to get O'Neal to sign his contract after the 2003-04 season and then fired Thomas, betraying O'Neal's trust.
The pair are said to have hardly spoken in recent years, but given Bird's status as an in-state legend, it was a popularity contest O'Neal could never win.
"He's a misunderstood guy, coming from a screwed-up situation," said one NBA insider.
O'Neal has gone out of his way to prove he's ready for a fresh start in Toronto.
Following news of the deal, O'Neal called Colangelo, Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell and Bosh, in each case assuring them he was determined to make the most of a fresh start and fit in well alongside Bosh. He wanted to prove his string of six consecutive all-star seasons was the norm and the past two years the exception.
More important, he's been walking the walk, Abunassar says.
O'Neal has spent nearly two months focusing primarily on basketball-specific fitness training with just a dusting of skill work thrown in. His fitness and health have continued to improved, and he's now up to 45 minutes of basketball work following nearly two hours of therapy and training.
His four- to five-hour days will get longer later this month as he begins to scrimmage against other NBA players later this month.
"Most NBA players don't start coming in until June or July," Abunassar said. "But Jermaine was here in May. He was very determined to get into elite shape, and we set up a four-month plan to get there and we're way ahead of schedule.
"I've been doing this for 10 years and he's as good a guy as I've had in terms of focusing on the plan and doing what it takes to get ready. If he keeps going at this pace, he's going to have a tremendous summer and be able to roll right into training camp. He'll be ready."