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The Importance of Jermaine O’Neal Returning Next Season

 

“I have another year on my deal, but as far as playing another year, I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I’m going to wait to see how things come out.” Jermaine O’Neal after Game 5 in Miami

It’s an all too familiar scenario for the Celtics brass in the past three years. You sign an aging but still imposing big man to a multi-year deal for the mid-level exception. You believe he still has enough miles left on the tires to be a productive contributor for you. Said free agent comes to Boston for the allure of an elusive title at a little bit less than market value.

The regular season comes and goes for said player with more than a few bumps in the road to put it kindly. When push comes to shove during the postseason however, the seasoned big pulls through and gives you everything the team could have reasonably expected out of them.

Then the team’s elimination follows with whispers of retirement, despite only being one year into the multi-year deal.

This storyline rang true with Rasheed Wallace in 2010, and it could just as easily occur with Jermaine O’Neal in 2011. And make no mistake, the decision will be the first, and perhaps the most important domino to fall in this Celtic offseason, if they hope to remain competitive for a championship during next year.

Why does this team need O’Neal to return next season? A guy who only managed to play a career low 24 regular season games and is due a cool 6.2 million dollars next year. To put it bluntly, the C’s don’t have the means or the cap flexibility (future CBA chances notwithstanding) to replace him, and also make the other necessary upgrades to the team’s bench to improve the offense.

With over 58 million dollars committed to just five members of the roster already (not including J.O.) for the 2011-12 season, Danny Ainge’s back is already against the wall as far as flexibility is concerned.

If O’Neal returns, that number jumps up to 64.2 million, but essentially will have no effect on how much money the team has to spend this offseason. The only money Ainge has to spend as things stand right now with the current CBA:

Mid-Level Exception: Roughly 5-6 million
Bi-Annual Exception: Around 2 million
Veteran’s Minimum Contracts

For a team that needs to fill potentially fill up to 10 spots on its roster, that’s not a lot of cash to make the sufficient changes this team needs. Get bigger and more athletic upfront. Improve the offense. Reduce minutes for the Big Three. There’s a lot that has to be done.

Boston has bird rights on Big Baby, Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, meaning they don’t have to spend the above pool of money specifically on those guys. Even if all of those three are re-signed, (possible but not probable) it still leaves plenty of holes. Delonte West needs to get paid (he will make more than veteran’s minimum next year) and the team still has to address the offense and athleticism.

Without O’Neal in the picture however, the options still remain the same. It just adds another major hole to fill in the middle. It also gives the C’s free agents a bit of leverage in negotiating their deals, knowing the team’s situation I just described above.

If Boston wants to remain a contender and J.O. doesn’t come back, short of making a blockbuster deal Ainge is going to need to bring nearly everyone in the rotation. The agents will know this and try to squeeze every possible dollar out of Ainge. If O’Neal is back however, the C’s can probably let one of those free agents walk and still manage to get by.

As a sidebar, It’s interesting and perhaps a bit disappointing to see how the impact of Sheed’s retirement still has a chain effect on this team throughout the past season all the way to this very day and specific situation.

After the team failed to spend mid-level exception money in 2008-09, they went out and signed Wallace to a three-year deal for the entire MLE, with the hope the signing would address the team’s backup big problem for until the contract expired in 2013.

Once Wallace retired however in July 2010, it dealt the team the same situation it potentially faces now with J.O.

With Boston over the cap before last year even with Wallace having been bought out, it took the possibility away from Ainge to spend its MLE money last summer on other holes in the roster, such as a swingman to take the burden off of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.

Instead, the C’s had to pool its resources to sign another quality big, who turned out to be J.O. with the MLE, with the need at the position magnified even further with the ACL injury to Kendrick Perkins during last year’s finals.

Almost the same exact predicament will stare Ainge straight in the face if J.O. decides to hang them up this summer. It’s a scenario I wouldn’t envy to face for one more year.

So what can be done here to convince O’Neal to come back for one last run? Probably little else, besides drawing on his desire for a title.

J.O. has made nearly 160 million dollars over the course of his career, so the 6 plus million dollars he has waiting for him next season will most likely not be a factor. Instead, it will be his family and body undoubtedly which will have the deciding votes. Here’s O’Neal after Game 5 in Miami:

“I have a little boy that’s a sponge right now and he’s looking for more and more time from me and sometimes you can’t — your body tends to tell you what time it is. And again, I missed so much of this year, it would be inappropriate for me to even make a decision now, [because it'd be] an emotional decision. So I’m going to take a couple days off and stay on the program with the strength and conditioning guy and stick around Boston for another month, and then gauge it after the month is over, see where the collective bargaining is going.”

You have to sympathize with O’Neal here. The 32-year-old has played nearly 1,000 games and over 27,000 minutes in his 14-year NBA career. He’s had countless knee surgeries, and barely saw the floor during this regular season.

Despite the early turmoil, he came back to average 21.9 minutes this past postseason, to go with 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds a game. He posted those numbers despite the fact he gutted out nearly the entire postseason with a fractured left wrist, which clearly affected his rebounding and scoring.

Nonetheless, the guy held his own out there, kept the team as strong defensively as ever, and arguably won Game 1 of the Knicks series all by himself with his stellar play on both ends (12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 blocks).

A quick look at the free agent market finds very few players capable of bringing that kind of production. And the one’s that do, well it’s unlikely Boston has enough money to bring them in. Here’s a realistic list of free agent bigs Ainge could bring in for some/all of the mid-level:

Too expensive

Tyson Chandler
Nene
Samuel Dalembert
Greg Oden

Realistic Possibilities

Yao Ming (doubtful)
Joel Przybilla
Jeff Foster
Nazr Mohammed
Spencer Hawes (restricted)
Kwame Brown
DeAndre Jordan (restricted)
Ryan Hollins (player option)
Dan Gadzuric
Shelden Williams
Miami’s aging ineffective center trio
Theo Ratliff
Jason Collins
Tony Battie
Hilton Armstrong
Earl Barron
Kurt Thomas

And those are some of the better names. How much better does JO and Krstic sound to you after seeing that list? Jordan is the name I’ve heard a lot about, but it’s unlikely the Clippers don’t match any reasonable offer he gets. I wouldn’t mind Mohammed or Thomas but anyone else playing meaningful minutes in a postseason run. Thanks, but no thanks.

Given all this, all we can do right now is hope. Hope Doc Rivers is resting up his voice well enough right now to do a good sell job on J.O. to come back for one last run. Hope the rest of the veterans are on his case to make a final stand, knowing the sad truth that the team’s chances next year are effected in no small way by his decision.

  • Mike

    Ryan Hollins would be great behind Garnett and Greg Oden for center.

  • CG12

    I'd love to have J.O. back. He showed that, when he is healthy, he could make genuinely valuable contributions. I'd love to see Pryzbilla, as an alternative. He can really rebound and defend the paint. My guess is that he is out of our price range.

    • Jay P

      Huge injury risk as well. Not sure he would be out of the price range, but after what happened this year, I think Danny is going to look to getting a guy who's a little more dependable. Regardless of what Shaq/JO do.

  • Patrick

    I hope the C's push for DeAndre Jordan personally. I doubt the Clipps give him up easily, but that kid is atheltic, can rebound, block shots and dunk. He doesn't play a lot of D right now, but give him a preseason with the C's vets & he's sure to be nasty if he puts his mind to it. Other than Jordan, there aren't many guys I'd even want to see in green. Joel Przybilla is a good rebounder and would be a good alternative to Big Baby, but Kurt Thomas is waaay too old.

  • SteveB

    Shelden Williams is available? Awesome. But seriously, how about Jeff Foster. One of those guys you hate on the other team but love on your team. Doesn't mind doing the dirty work down low and isn't worried about scoring.
    On an unrelated note. Heard an interview on ESPN radio today that folks in OKC are becoming slightly disillusioned with Perk. Lots of bark and not much bite. With Perk it has always been the intangibles, he's definitely not going to fill up the box score for them. He seemed to give them a boost early on but has tailed off.

  • Zach

    Watching Perk in the Memphis and Dallas series makes the trade seem excellent – Perk is a constant liability on the floor both defensively and offensively. We would have been even more dreadful down the stretch had we kept him. He may bounce back next year but probably would not have resigned so that would not have benefitted us. Kristc and Green definitely > than Perk, sort of think Doc is excuse making with his comments about the trade

  • Zach

    probably still has the potential to be dominant but also has a greater probability of never staying healthy. Would be a great roll of the dice at a good price as he could put us over the top next year and going forward, but not worht the risk at a high price

  • skeeds

    De Andre Jordan is an athletic guy, I'd love to see him in green. I never worry about the defence, remember, this is a team that made Nate Robinson a legitimate defender.
    We can't afford to gamble again. We gambled a title this year relying on the good health of everyone, and the only guy who didn't miss time was Ray. Shaq, potentially career ending injuries, JO, also. Delonte suffered 3 different serious injuries, Rondo played through a ton of stuff and almost had his arm ripped off, and Marquis almost died for crissakes. Nonono, we need a healthy guy.
    Oden, no. With this team's karma, he'll be out before the season starts. Nene, now that's a player. Very, very good scorer, strong and a real fighter. I have no idea how we can sign him, but it would be a great change to have a center who can score effectively…

    • joanthan

      nene had his own injury problems before, and cancer. high risk high reward scenario

  • Steve B

    Just look at the difference one guy can make like Haslem in game 2 against the Bulls. Aggressive and athletic.

  • Morpheus

    There's the draft also. Justin Harper should be a target at 25, Keith Benson, Greg Smith in the 2nd round.

  • Diego

    Bad news is that the same things we will have to offer, Miami will have them too, probably. Add to that a younger nucleous, a better chance at a tittle and a more appealing weather….. :(

  • Batman

    GET US YAO

  • Alex

    Also, if JO comes back and isn't effective, his expiring contract will at least be useful for trades (assuming the CBA is at all similar).

  • goforthanddie

    Wouldn't you rather have someone who can stay somewhat healthy and contribute?

  • joanthan

    I've also heard Kenyon Martin as a possibility.
    We should target players like:

    Jason Thompson(kings)
    Carl Landry(hornets)
    Michael Beasley/Anthony Tolliver(t-wolves)
    Leon Powe/Darrel Arthur(Grizzlies)
    Ed Davis(raptors)
    Patrick Patterson(rockets)
    Luke Mbah A Moute(bucks)
    Josh Mcroberts(pacers)

    • Diego

      A couple of guys on your list are quite intriguing but they are all restricted and again what we could offer for them will be happily met by their teams.
      There's a rumor out there that Minnesota is interested in trading that 2nd pick and perhaps Beasley. If possible I will try to resign Green and Baby and along with picks try to get both Beasley and the 2nd pick….hey is Kahn, perhaps he will do it !

  • corps

    TYSON CHANDLER and Deandre Jordan

    • Dan

      I give this a -10% chance of happening.

  • ego roots

    Swing away and go for Oden. What the hell. We've been signing old and injury prone big men for the past couple of years anyway. Why not try for a young, injury prone big man this time? Besides the last former No. 1 pick/ex-Trailblazer acquired by the C's resulted in a championship…

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