Thirteen years later, Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen could have a chance to finally right one of his biggest regrets.
“I'm very open to Portland. They're definitely a team I'm looking forward to having talks with this summer,” O'Neal, an unrestricted free agent come July 1, told CSNNW.com. “LaMarcus [Aldridge] and Damian [Lillard] along with [Nicolas] Batum are some great pieces to build around. All they need to do is shore up the bench and add a paint presence on defense and they'll be right there. It's hard to put that type of stress on your starting five and I know I can help ease some of that stress.”
O'Neal was originally drafted by the Blazers with the 17th pick in the 1996 draft. As a 17-year-old, he struggled to find playing time throughout his career in Rip City sitting behind the likes of Rasheed Wallace, Brian Grant, Arvydas Sabonis, Clifford Robinson, Gary Trent and Kelvin Cato.
During the offseason following the Blazers' infamous Game 7 collapse to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, then-GM Bob Whitsitt dealt an unhappy O'Neal to the Indiana Pacers for veteran Dale Davis. The trade eventually haunted Portland as O'Neal became a six-time All-Star. The Blazers haven't won a playoff series ever since.
That trade has become a nightmare for Allen, who has been reluctant to sign off on dealing young prospects to prevent a repeat of trading away another potential All-Star.
But is O'Neal the right fit for the Blazers at this time?
Now 34 years old, he will enter his 18th NBA season with a ton of mileage on his body. O'Neal has also been injury-prone but still averaged 8.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season with the Phoenix Suns—his best numbers since the 2009-10 season with the Miami Heat.
The Blazers need depth behind LaMarcus Aldridge and Meyers Leonard, as the team is reportedly preparing not to re-sign J.J. Hickson, according to Jason Quick of The Oregonian. O'Neal would be a solid backup to Aldridge for 10-15 minutes per game and has the ability to start from time to time. Aldridge was ninth in the NBA in minutes per game (37.7)—an area that needs to be reduced.
O'Neal may not be a long-term answer, but he would provide a key veteran presence on a team with an average age of 24.2 years old. He can be had cheaply after he signed a one-year, $1.35 million deal last summer with the Suns (via the Arizona Republic).
The Blazers' bench was the team's biggest weakness this season with their backup bigs including an untested Joel Freeland, a rookie in Leonard and journeyman Jared Jeffries.
O'Neal is far removed from his prime, but as a cheap veteran backup big, he would be a solid signing to fortify the weakest bench in the NBA.