It has been almost a year since the Miami Heat acquired Jermaine O'Neal in a trade with the Toronto Raptors that sent Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks north in return for the center and Jamario Moon. And it's evident that O'Neal is a shell of his former self.
JO is averaging 12.8 points per game, his lowest scoring of the decade. His 1.3 blocks per game are his lowest average of the decade as well. It is evident that O'Neal is not the six-time All-Star that he was when he dominated for the Indiana Pacers.
O'Neal's career began to take a nosedive at the end of the 2005 season, when he was rattled by a series of knee injuries that caused him to miss a multitude of games over the next several years and led to his eventual demise as a Pacer. He was then traded to Toronto, where it was clear his skills were on the decline and was eventually dealt to Miami as a result.
The Heat remained confident that O'Neal still had game and that some of his former skills would return if he was injury free. He played 27 games for the Heat at the end of last season, averaging only 13 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He didn't make a huge impact on the team and Miami still lost in the first round of the playoffs to Atlanta.
O'Neal described his condition at the final stretch of the year as "playing with one leg," and that his injuries limited his game severely.
So, the 6'11" center worked with renowned trainer Tim Grover to gain back the strength in his knees and get his conditioning up. The summer workout with Grover helped O'Neal get his knees healthy and gave him the pop back in his jump. He looks a lot better this season, averaging a career high field goal percentage (54%) and his rebounding numbers increased by almost two boards at 7.1 per game.
However, the fact still remains that O'Neal is not the dominant force he once was in Indiana, when he averaged consistent double-doubles every year. His stats are noteworthy at 12.8 points, 7.1 boards, and 1.3 blocks per game, but they are not the type of numbers that the primary big man on the roster has on a championship caliber team.
O'Neal is a major part of Miami's production and is depended on to contribute every night, but he simply isn't a consistent threat anymore.
And his contract does not come cheap at $23 million per season. Fortunately, O'Neal's contract expires after this season and he can become a free agent. The question is, should the Heat resign JO next year?
I think Miami should undoubtedly retain O'Neal and his services under two conditions: He resigns at a relatively inexpensive price and accepts a reserve role.
O'Neal still has gas left in the tank and he can be very valuable to a Miami Heat team that is pushing to be in championship contention next season. This, of course, depends on Miami's 2010 offseason, where Dwyane Wade can become a free agent and where the Heat hold the second most salary cap space in the NBA.
If all goes according to plan and the Heat resign Dwyane Wade and sign another maximum salary player such as Chris Bosh or Amar'e Stoudamire, then O'Neal would be a great back up big man on a title-worthy Heat team.
Imagine a starting lineup that featured Rafer Alston, Dwyane Wade, Michael Beasley, Udonis Haslem, and Bosh/Stoudamire with O'Neal highlighting the second unit. This also is a hypothetical situation that depends on if the Heat resign Haslem and Alston, but the point is Wade, two other top free agents, and a bench that features O'Neal is an elite team.
Resigning O'Neal would provide the Heat with outstanding frontcourt depth and it would give opponents trouble on a nightly basis. When Bosh/Stoudamire go to the bench, they are replaced by O'Neal, who can come in and be a double-double threat.
He can also be a court leader as a 14-year veteran with lots of postseason experience and will be a mentor to young players. In addition, his inside post presence and defense will be huge off the bench and give the Heat a dangerous reserve unit if they get the right pieces.
O'Neal could have a similar role to what Alonzo Mourning had when the Heat won the NBA Championship in 2006: a court leader, a great defender, and a person that can contribute highly off the bench. Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning formed a great center duo on a championship squad, so a player like Bosh or Stoudamire could form a potent frontcourt duo with JO.
Overall, I have enjoyed seeing Jermaine O'Neal in a Heat uniform and I have liked the contributions he has made to the team. Although his skills have declined and he certainly hasn't elevated Miami to the next level, he still has been a solid player for the team.
He still shows flashes of his former self and has the ability to still put up big numbers sometimes. His production is needed on this Heat team and is a reason why they remain competitive in the East playoff race.
Hopefully next summer the Heat will resign Wade, sign two big free agents, and be in the position to be vying for a ring next season. If that happens, Miami should certainly retain O'Neal at a modest rate (mid-level exception) and showcase him off the bench.
Plus, JO still hasn't won a ring and with his career nearing its finish, he is going to want to play for a title contending team. Why not the Miami Heat?
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