O'Neal: "Not Really Enjoying It"
Jermaine O'Neal can't get up like he used to. The Indiana Pacers' 6-foot-11 all-star forward would elevate so high and lift his right arm even higher to release his jumper, making it virtually impossible for an opponent to reject it. But on more than one occasion this season, O'Neal has had that jumper stuffed right back in his face.
"You never really [saw] that," O'Neal said after the Pacers lost 103-90 to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night.
But it happened again in the fourth quarter last night, when Wizards center Brendan Haywood swatted O'Neal's 15-foot shot. O'Neal grabbed the rebound then leaned to the left to shoot a fadeaway that barely grazed the rim. It's been an all-too-familiar image for O'Neal this season: Either a Marcus Camby, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins or Haywood is blocking his shot or he is simply off target.
O'Neal needed 19 shots to get 17 points last night. He played a season-high 39 minutes and the Pacers (3-5) lost their fifth game in a row. The third-leading scorer on the Pacers - behind Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy?!? - at 13.7 points per game, O'Neal is shooting a career-low 38.3 percent from the floor. His primary problem is an over-reliance on that jump shot. He isn't backing down his opponents in the low block as much, or giving those shakes and shimmies to get them off-balanced.
O'Neal obviously isn't right.
As he munched on a plate of chicken fingers and French fries after the game, O'Neal had an ice pack on his surgically repaired left knee (he had offseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus last summer, just like Gilbert Arenas). But from the sullen look that appears surgically placed upon his face, he seems to be weighed down by more than just a bum knee.
"I'm not really enjoying it right now," O'Neal said. "For one, we're losing."
O'Neal is having a difficult adjustment to a team that is abandoning the plodding (Arenas used the term, "robotic") style in which he thrived under Rick Carlisle to a new, uptempo approach under new Coach Jim O'Brien. The personnel around O'Neal have changed dramatically, too, over the past few seasons, leaving him to ponder his future with the organization.
He had the most baffling trade me/don't trade me demand this side of Kobe Bryant last summer and the Pacers made no secrets that they were attempting to move O'Neal. They called about 25 teams to gauge interest in O'Neal before realizing that the league-wide opinion of the only Pacer to be named to six all-star teams had diminished considerably.
It was just three years ago that O'Neal was in discussion for the league's most valuable player award, finishing third in voting in 2004, after he averaged 20.1 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocks to lead the Pacers to 61 wins and the Eastern Conference Finals. But O'Neal has missed 82 games because of injuries and suspensions the past three seasons. His reputation for being brittle, combined with his salary - O'Neal makes $19.7 million this season and is owed more than $44 million the next two - has made him difficult to move.
Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird has taken O'Neal off the block while the team attempts to see how he fits into O'Brien's new system, but the cloud still lingers.
"I don't worry about that," O'Neal said of the trade speculation. "It doesn't bother me because I understand the nature of the business. When things go bad, the best player is going to get his name thrown in there.
"I mean, you got a situation with Kobe Bryant, who is the league's best player. How do you trade him? If they trade a guy like Shaq, everybody is tradable," O'Neal said. "You can't sit down and worry about what a team is thinking. I told [Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh] and those guys this summer . . . 'If y'all choose to move me to another situation, I appreciate what you've done for me. You've given me the opportunity to establish myself. I stand behind their decision.' If I'm traded, I'm traded. That means there is another team that wants me."
O'Neal, Jeff Foster and Jamaal Tinsley are the only players remaining from that conference final team. And Bird said in a conversation last month that the team still hasn't recovered from the infamous brawl in November 2004. "Just to fight back from that was tough on all of us," Bird said. "We had a team that could compete for a championship, but some players wanted to be traded, some players couldn't play together, and we made a lot of changes. But we're trying to build it back up to an elite. It might take some time, but we feel like we're in that direction."
Since the brawl, Bird and Walsh have traded Ron Artest for Peja Stojakovic, traded for Al Harrington and packaged him with Stephen Jackson to bring in Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy and Ike Diogu. The team is moving in a different direction and it's up to O'Neal to catch up - if he can. "It feels like we did start over," O'Neal said, "but it doesn't feel like we're at that expansion level. I'm willing to grow with those guys. If the team feels like it needs to move me if things aren't going well, that's what it is."
This summer, the Pacers replaced Carlisle with O'Brien, who has given his team permission to get out on the run. After missing the last four preseason games and the season opener with a hyperextended left knee, O'Neal said he has been forced to "figure things out on the fly." O'Brien has been bringing along slowly O'Neal, playing him shortened minutes, and said he wasn't worried about his star's reduced production. "Jermaine's numbers aren't where they are going to be midseason," O'Brien said.
O'Neal said he is confident that he won't continue to struggle. "I'm getting there," O'Neal said. "My game is not where I want it to be. My rhythm isn't any where near where I want it to be. My knee isn't where I want it to be. But I feel better every time I step on the court. I don't have any major concerns that I won't be back to the level I want to be.
"Do I feel down about where I'm at? No," he said. "I feel like it's early in the season."
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