Back in August, I suggested that the Pacers could be the most unappealing and uninteresting franchise in professional sports. Not the case.
While there is plenty of uncertainty about Indy's future, the last few months have been anything but uninteresting in Indianapolis. Jermaine O'Neal wanted out and then didn't. Jim O'Brien returned to the coaching ranks with his special brand of fast-paced-high-chemistry basketball. Mike Dunleavy has suddenly began traveling the road toward actually playing like the high lottery pick he once was. Jamaal Tinsley has resurrected his career and perhaps his personal life as well, with a few bumps in the road. Danny Granger has continued to develop.
The Pacers stunned many by jumping off to a 15-13 start playing a very entertaining brand of basketball, but an injury to the revived Tinsley has slowed them down, and the Pacers have gone just 1-8 over their last nine. But all things considered, this team is still worth talking about once more.
The talking point of the day is a simple one: It is time for Jermaine O'Neal to get that change of scenery. For JO's good, and for the Pacers' good, it is time for him to go. With three years and close to $64 million remaining on his contract, however, he is no threat to walk away and leave the Pacers with nothing in return, and thus the Pacers are under no external pressure to move him. That said, an open auction may just be the way to go for this team.
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O'Neal holds value to the Pacers primarily because he gives them something that nobody else on this team does: a low-post scoring presence and partly because there are still memories of what he was able to do three years ago and a belief that, at age 29, he still has time to recapture that side of his game. He does have the time, and he does still have the capability to play a very nice game in the post. Perhaps even better than "very nice."
But JO's days of 20-10 seasons in Indiana appear to be nearly unquestionably over. His numbers are as low as they have been since the beginning of his tenure with Indy at the start of the decade, as O'Neal is averaging just 15.6 points and 7.3 boards in 31.8 minutes per game, not exactly numbers befitting a $64 million man. He made a jerk of himself with his constant waffling back and forth on trade demands in the off-season, and reports of O'Neal undergoing some sort of massive attitude change on that front aren't exactly flooding out of Indiana right now. For someone long considered a good guy, it appears that Indiana is simply no longer the fit for him on a personal level. From the basketball standpoint, O'Neal isn't the player he once was, and he currently isn't being labeled a great leader or mentor in the locker room. The signs are pointing to his being better off elsewhere, and his current team being all right with that resolution.
But just for emphasis, there is one more point of note that might be the best signal that the time has come to remove O'Neal from the Pacers: The team has been markedly better without him than with him this season. It is one thing to be able to survive without a big-deal player in the lineup for a few nights during the season. It is quite another to be 11-20 with that player and 5-1 without him. Even more surprisingly, four of those five wins came against teams currently in the top eight of the Western Conference, as the Pacers notched wins against New Orleans, Dallas, Denver and Portland without O'Neal's services. There is a growing belief that having O'Neal in the lineup only serves to slow down the fast-paced throw-'em-up style that Obie wants his team to play and that his need to have the ball in his hands takes the offense out of sync. That said, it should come as no shock that the Pacers' offensive efficiency is three points per 100 possessions greater when O'Neal is off the floor.
The immediate future isn't looking too bright either. The Pacers have won one of nine, Jamaal Tinsley is still playing hurt when he is playing at all, and the team still has two games left to play this week out West as well as seven of ten on the road for the rest of January. With the schedule what it is and O'Neal healthy and Tinsley not, the Pacers could be seeing their chances at a playoff run going down the drain sooner rather than later. As ridiculous as the first clause of that last sentence might have once sounded, it may well be true these days.
The further the Pacers move out of contention, the less O'Neal is likely to care. What all this adds up to is that it is time for the Pacers to unabashedly look to move JO before his value begins to decline with even greater rapidity. This is a player who still has the potential and enough character to move elsewhere and succeed, and this is a team that needs to begin to look in a different direction. Though moving O'Neal will involve likely taking on some salary in return and not having a major post presence for the immediate future, if the Pacers can bring back some young talent or draft picks for the future, the move will be one that makes great sense from a long-term perspective.
And worse comes to worse, it surely isn't like that lack of O'Neal has hurt the Pacers all too much this season anyway.