OAKLAND—Jermaine O'Neal's job description just expanded.
All season, the 35-year-old vet has functioned as the Golden State Warriors' emotional center, the most respected conduit through which head coach Mark Jackson's messages of faith and togetherness travel. His presence on the bench and in the locker room has been immensely valuable to the relatively inexperienced Dubs—probably more valuable than the 20 minutes per game he logged on the court.
But Andrew Bogut is out indefinitely, sidelined by a broken rib that makes even the simple act of breathing painful. So in order to keep the Warriors' playoff hopes alive against a brutally tough first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, O'Neal must provide an on-court impact just as big as his spiritual one.
Based on what Stephen Curry told Bleacher Report and the assembled press at Warriors practice on April 17, the 17-year veteran is ready to do just that.
"He’s definitely not just a presence, a figure on our team. He actually goes out and produces and plays well. He gives us a lot on both ends. He’s won us a couple of games scoring the ball. He’s won us a couple of games with key defensive stops, key rebounds."
Curry's not just blowing smoke, either; O'Neal has been more than a behind-the-scenes leader this season. His true-shooting percentage of 57 percent is the highest of his career, and his win shares per 48 minutes tops any figure he's posted in more than a decade, per Basketball-Reference.com.
|Pts/36 Min||Reb/36 Min||Blk/36 Min||TS%||WS/48|
The Clippers boast an imposing front line, and although Jackson says he hasn't decided whether to go small with David Lee and Draymond Green up front or utilize O'Neal as the team's starting center in a more conventional lineup, it's hard to imagine the Warriors having any success without a formidable presence in the lane.
As a matter of fact, the statistics say it's basically impossible.
In four regular-season meetings, Golden State dominated the Clippers with Bogut on the floor but fell apart without him.
Per NBA.com, the Warriors posted a net rating of plus-12.9 points per 100 possessions with their starting center on the court in those games. When Bogut was on the bench, Golden State's performance swung violently in the opposite direction, as their minus-9.5 net rating attests.
O'Neal is not Bogut. He's not the instinctive, physical defensive savant the big Aussie is. His on-and-off-court splits don't look nearly as impactful, a fact owing equally to O'Neal's time spent on the court with a poor second unit and Bogut's overall excellence.
You can see how each affects the Warriors in the chart below. There's an overlapping sample of 50 total minutes in which Bogut and O'Neal shared the court this year, but it's so small as to have a negligible impact on the overall numbers.
|GSW with Bogut||26.4||107.8||98.8||+9.1|
|GSW with O'Neal||20.1||104.7||101.2||+3.5|
Even if he's not Bogut, O'Neal is a solid defender—one who absolutely will not back down from the challenge presented by the Clips' imposing bigs.
Put simply, the numbers say Golden State needs O'Neal to lead them on the court like he has in the locker room. He told reporters:
The difference now is I have to play more minutes right away. I’m sure there would have been points in the process of a seven-game series where I would have probably had to play extended minutes anyway. So those type of things don’t really affect me. They don’t affect my thought process because I have a job to do and I expect to do it well. That’s my personal challenge.
Fortunately for O'Neal and the Warriors, the consistent off days the NBA playoffs provide should give his body time to recover.
"The best thing for me is there are no back to backs. That’s the biggest thing I’m extremely happy about is that there are no back to backs. I can prepare, get my body right and focused for the next game."
Expect O'Neal to push himself to the limit, both because he knows his teammates need him so badly, and because this might very well be the end of the line for him as an NBA player.
Playing without a guaranteed contract next year, O'Neal talks often about appreciating the chance to compete on the postseason stage. That refrain is as much about motivating his younger teammates as it is an acknowledgement of his own NBA mortality.
Don’t take it for granted. Sometimes you think the opportunity is going to be there every single year because you have talent and you’re on a good team. But, things—injuries, freak accidents, a guy breaking his rib on a play—that can happen to any player at any given time and basically put him out for the year. So sometimes if that happens to the right person, it really changes the dynamics of the team. So understand who we are, what the chance is. The opportunity is is something we’ve got to really value.
Wanting to take advantage of what could be his final postseason appearance and having the physical wherewithal to do so are two different things. And until it actually happens, we can't be certain O'Neal will hold up in a bigger role.
Curry, for one, isn't concerned:
Not a lot of people expected what he was able to provide for us all year, so it’s kind of the same narrative. We understand what he provides for us and how much he makes us better when he’s healthy and able to play. So it’ll be huge for him to be that JO we need at this point in the season.
Jackson also believes in his veteran big man and appreciates what one last chance to prove himself means: "I’m sure it means a lot to him," Jackson said before continuing with a semi-facetious request:
I say give him an extension right now. It means a lot to him. He’s a guy that gave us everything in his tank. He’s a proud guy who’s had a tremendous career. To be on a huge stage against an outstanding team with bigs that are going to challenge him, I would think he would feel there’s no better way to close it out.
O'Neal put together a solid year, and an eye-opening playoff performance may hint he's got another one in him. But if this really is the end, there will be some poetry in it.
After serving his team with his voice, O'Neal will have to sacrifice his body in order to finish the job.