NBA AM: The Rejuvenation of Jermaine O’Neal
Senior NBA Writer & College Basketball Editor
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The hardest thing for professional athletes to do is walk away from the game that they’ve become so good at and been able to make a living playing. Very few embrace retirement at the right time, opting instead to continue to push their bodies past the limit to try and squeeze another year or two out of it.
Since about 2007 Phoenix Suns forward Jermaine O’Neal has looked like one of those guys who just didn’t know when to walk away. In the 2006-07 season O’Neal was one of the best power forwards in the game, putting up 19.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.4 blocks a night. After that he played in more than 70 games just once, looking like a fragment of his former self while missing 262 games from 2007-2012.
Prior to joining Phoenix this season, O’Neal was with the Boston Celtics for two seasons and looked like someone who had nothing left. He said otherwise time and time again, blaming injuries for his struggles more than a true drop off in his ability to play. That’s every washed up athlete’s go-to excuse once their production takes a steep decline. So, when O’Neal said that it appeared more like he was in denial than a true state of reality.
Turned out he was right, though. O’Neal has bounced back in a major way this season. He’s shown that he can still be a viable part of a rotation and has actually looked like a legit starter in recent weeks. In the Suns’ recent upset of the San Antonio Spurs on the road O’Neal looked like he did back during the 2006-07 campaign. He tore the Spurs up to the tune of 22 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks while leading his team to a 105-101 overtime victory.
“I just liked his low post presence,” Suns head coach Lindsey Hunter said to HOOPSWORLD. “We played off of him a lot when we got stagnant. We know he can score on the low post and we played through him. If they were to double we had our shooters in and guys who could make shots. He created a lot of spacing for us and situations for us that we could take advantage of.”
During free agency this past summer, O’Neal was not one of the guys drawing a lot of interest. He was adamant that he had something left in the tank, but at one point it looked like he may not get a chance to prove it.
The Suns, heralded across the league for having one of if not the best training staffs, came to the table late to give O’Neal a shot.
Early on O’Neal wasn’t blowing anyone away, but surprisingly here in the later portion of the season he’s racking up double-doubles while often serving as the Suns’ primary option offensively.
“That’s really been a hindrance for me the last 4-5 years,” O’Neal said. “I just couldn’t get the knee right. I’ve felt really good for the most part of this year. The difference now is that since Lindsey has become head coach he’s more inside outside, outside inside. That’s really where I’m most comfortable. That’s not to knock coach Gentry’s style, but it’s more three point shots and quick shots. I don’t really fit into that.”
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who came into the league with O’Neal back in 1996, recommend that O’Neal go to Germany to undergo the platent rich plasma (PRP) therapy that has been an intricate part in keeping him amongst the best shooting guards in the league. O’Neal took his advice and as a result has gone from a player who looked like he should have retired 2-3 years ago to one who could play another couple of seasons.
“The feeling is when I’m talking to him and being around him is he wants to play more,” Hunter said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he played another year or two.”
“Do I physically feel like I can play? Yeah,” O’Neal said. “I’m going to go back to Germany as soon as the season is over with. I’m going to take 3-4 weeks off, let the body heal then go back through the same process. Again, the knee was really the element. It slowed me down a lot. But, that’s something my daughter, my son and my wife is going to help me decide. But, physically do I feel like I can play? Yeah.”
At 20-39 the Suns are strictly playing for pride at this point of the season. Their shot at the playoffs is done and out of respect for O’Neal the team talked to him about a potential buyout so he could finish the season with a contender. It was a tempting option for O’Neal, who has yet to win a championship in his 17-year career, but he believes in the Suns’ potential.
O’Neal has been a part of contending teams throughout his career and knows at this point what it takes to win, but it’s yet to permeate throughout the rest of the Suns’ locker room.
“We’ve probably lost 45 to 50 percent of our games, being up late in games and just couldn’t close it,” O’Neal said. “That’s us not knowing how to win. When you’re around this locker room, you create such a bond. I had an opportunity to leave and go to a playoff contender a week ago. The reason why I chose to stay is because of this bond and because of what I think these guys can be. There’s enough talent here, we just have to understand how do you win games, how do you prepare yourself on a day-to-day basis. And more than anything how do you be the best possible person you can be.”
In Wednesday night’s victory against the Spurs the Suns were able to close it out. Wesley Johnson hit a big three to send it into overtime, where they would dominate defensively en route to picking up a win in San Antonio, something only two other teams had done beforehand. It was one of those games O’Neal can point to as evidence for what can happen when you do the things you need to leading up to a game, an area O’Neal has really been trying to help his teammates with.
“We know that of Jermaine,” Johnson said. “He’s kept in good shape. He always does that in practice. He always stays at a high level.”
O’Neal will be a free agent at season’s end, and you can bank on the interest level from teams being much higher in him than it was last season. There’s no guarantee he’ll be back, but now nobody can say he’s walking away because he can’t play anymore.
“At the end of the day I came back and I put in the work I put in this summer for me, as a man looking into the mirror and saying ‘did I finish this the way I thought I could finish?’, O’Neal said. “That’s what it’s all about for me. As long as my family is happy with me I’m happy.”
Sacramento’s Final Stand: On Friday the NBA will receive a counter offer put together by Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson in his final attempt to try and keep the Kings in town. The Hansen-Ballmer Seattle-based group currently has an agreement in place with the Maloof brothers to purchase their 65 percent majority ownership for a reported $341 million. If approved by the league, the Kings will relocate to Seattle immediately and will use the KeyArena until their new arena is ready in 2015-16.
Johnson’s counter features 24-Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov and billionaire Ron Burkle. Mastrov leads a group looking to purchase the Maloof’s controlling interest, while Burkle has put together a plan for a new arena in downtown Sacramento. Johnson, who made a speech on Thursday evening talking about the state of the city, has also put together an investment group to purchase the seven percent of Kings ownership available in bankruptcy court and has $50 million in commitments from sponsorships over the next five years.
“We are still very much in this game,” Johnson said during the speech. “I hope Seattle gets a team someday. Let me be crystal clear; It’s not going to be this team. Not our team. No way.”
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports Mastrov’s bid is in the neighborhood of $341 million, but a bit shy of that mark. He cites sources who say that Johnson, Mastrov and Burkle have a shot and that their bid will cause some debate.
The NBA’s Board of Governors will meet in New York on April 18 and before they vote Johnson will have the opportunity to address them. The NBA has told Johnson that his case will be heard without any prior determinations already being made. However, Wojnarowksi also reports that the Hansen-Ballmer group has already made a $30 million deposit to the Maloofs and is in the process of putting together a front office. Clearly, they fell their offer trumps Johnson’s last-ditch effort to keep the team put.
During his All-Star Weekend press conference NBA commissioner David Stern made it clear that there is no possible outcome where both Sacramento and Seattle end up happy. One of them is going to be left disappointed and teamless, with no plans for expansion in sight.
Up Close With Kendall Marshall: Phoenix Suns rookie point guard Kendall Marshall has seen a lot during his first year in the NBA. In the video interview below he talks with HOOPSWORLD about how the experience has been as a whole as well as what he plans to work on this offseason and much more.br> br>