Rejuvenated Jermaine O'Neal Is Here To Win

Jermaine O'Neal is far removed from the player who averaged over 19 points per game for six consecutive seasons from 2001 to 2007 and was selected to six straight All-Star games. Even still, O'Neal is still a legitimate threat that can help the Celtics win their second title in four years.

Jermaine O'Neal is far removed from the player who averaged over 19 points per game for six consecutive seasons from 2001 to 2007 and was selected to six straight All-Star games.

Even still, O'Neal is a legitimate threat that can help the Celtics win their second title in four years.

"I believe that my play will speak for itself," O'Neal said after signing with Boston in July.

There's no questioning O'Neal's overall production in his 14-year career. He has had a great career, and his numbers are extremely commendable: 12,252 points, 6,503 rebounds, 1,629 blocks, 46.6 FG%.

Yet that wasn't always the case.

Drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 17th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft at age 18, O'Neal struggled in his first four seasons.

On August 31, 2000, the Trail Blazers deemed that O'Neal was a lost cause and traded him and Joe Kleine to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Dale Davis.

The moved panned out for Indiana (that's an understatement), as O'Neal went on to become one of the NBA's best big men in the early 2000s.

After spending eight seasons in Indiana and averaging career-best totals (24.3 PPG in 2004-05, 10.5 RPG and 2.8 blocks in 2001-02, the Pacers sent O'Neal along with Nathan Jawai to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Maceo Baston, T.J. Ford, Roy Hibbert and Rasho Nesterovic on July 9, 2008.

O'Neal played 41 games with the Raptors and averaged 13.5 points and 7 rebounds before Toronto "sent his talents to South Beach" and the Miami Heat in a trade for Shawn Marion and former Celtics point guard Marcus Banks.

In the final 27 games of the season, O'Neal's numbers dipped slightly, averaging an even 13 points and 5.4 rebounds.

Celtics fans remember O'Neal all too well, as he along with Reggie Miller and Ron Artest anchored the hated Pacers as they swept the Celtics in the first round of the 2004-05 playoffs and edged Boston 4-3 in the opening round of the 2005-06 postseason.

Oh, and there was the agonizing and sometimes laughable process of watching O'Neal shoot free throws. It wasn't the fact that O'Neal (a career 71.1% FT shooter) was horrendous at the line, but rather that he took way to long to do so.

Now, we welcome the very man we used to serenade with the ten second free throw count into the Garden as a member of our beloved Celtics.

When Celtics' general manager Danny Ainge signed O'Neal, many questioned if he would take issue with surrendering his starting job midway through the season upon the return of starting center Kendrick Perkins, who tore his ACL in Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals.

That won't be the case, O'Neal assured. He's just happy to be part of a championship-caliber team.

"When he comes back, it's his position to have," O'Neal told reporters. "I'm just here to do my job. I'm not trying to step on anybody's feet. I'm not trying to do anything to cause any issues. I'm here to win. That's just really what it boils down to."

If you're going to take any of O'Neal's words to heart, make it these - "I'm here to win." 

O'Neal was brought in to do one thing in particular in Perkins' absence, and that's rebound. Again, O'Neal has 6,503 career rebounds (1,762 offensive, 4,714 defensive) and has averaged 7.5 boards per game in 14 seasons.

In the 2000-01 and 2002-03 seasons, O'Neal ranked ninth and sixth in the NBA in total rebounds with 794 and 796, respectively.

The one major knock against O'Neal is his recent reputation for laziness after petering out in the playoffs for the Miami Heat last season.

O'Neal averaged 13.6 points and 6.9 rebounds in 70 games for the Heat in 2009-10. His numbers in Miami's one postseason series against the Celtics (which the Heat lost, 4-1) were significantly worse, averaging 4.2 points and 5.6 rebounds.

His excuse? O'Neal said he suffered an ankle injury after being kicked there with a few games remaining in the regular season.

He didn't make his injury known to reporters until after Miami was eliminated, and for good reason.

Here's what O'Neal said after being bumped from the postseason by Boston last year (via ESPNBoston.com).

"To me, when you suit up and you go out there, you're telling your team and your followers that you're ready to play," O'Neal said. "Whatever excuses you have should be kept in the locker room. So I chose not to talk about it, because it didn't really matter. I still felt like I could go out there and help the team, and unfortunately, I couldn't do it."

It's a valid argument. If a player makes it known that they are hurt, it opens to door to doubt in the locker room. O'Neal's mentality was to be quiet, show up and try your hardest.

To be fair, not even LeBron James and Dwight Howard could to derail the Celtics in the 2010 postseason. If they couldn't do it, then there is no way that O'Neal could do so.

Even though he has been saying the right things, the O'Neal haters (and there are many) still question his commitment to winning.

To them, I offer the following. If O'Neal was only worried about his paycheck and playing out the rest of his career in a desirable location, he wouldn't be here in snowy old Boston.

Dallas and Denver were also interested in signing O'Neal, and both are more desirable locations for NBA players. Both could have paid O'Neal more than the Celtics, who wound up signing him to a  two-year deal worth $12 million.

Again, he said it himself - he's here to win.

Still, that doesn't mean his road to a title will be easy.

The latest hurdle that O'Neal must overcome is a hamstring injury suffered while guarding Shaquille O'Neal in practice on Monday.

As Doc Rivers told reporters, the injury will keep O'Neal (Jermaine, not Shaq) out for at least a week.

While an injury to a 31-year-old (he will be 31 on October 13th) is concerning to fans, O'Neal isn't worried.

"I'm not really concerned about [the hamstring]," O'Neal told reporters (via ESPN Boston). "I'm more concerned about being in with the guys and getting that chemistry up. The first four days [of camp] were really good. Wednedsay, Thursday, and Friday [at camp], I was just starting to get comfortable with the system, the philosophies that Doc wanted and also playing with those guys. It's very difficult to learn areas of an offense and defense when you're not in there. That's probably the most frustrating part about it, but I don't have any doubt in my mind that I'll be back in there soon."

Now that O'Neal is dealing with an injury, he may have lost his edge on Shaq as the temporary starting center. Nevertheless, O'Neal would still see significant playing time backing up Shaq and/or Kevin Garnett.

O'Neal won't put up all-star worthy numbers this season as his recent history has proven, but that doesn't mean he won't be productive and should still average around 10 points and and seven rebounds per game if healthy.

His will to win is what makes him most desirable, and if what he says is true, we should see O'Neal go all out this season. 

After all, we saw what three ring-less veterans could do when determined to win back in 2007.

Let's hope that history repeats itself.

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