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Will Change of Scenery Rejuvenate JO?

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If the Raptors weren't in the Atlantic Division (and thus a viable option to challenge the green for the top spot), it would be difficult for me not to be highly excited about this team's new-look front-court.

As is, I'll settle for filing myself under the classification of notably intrigued.

The Raps of course went out and pulled the trigger on one of the summer's bigger trades a couple of months ago when they moved T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Maceo Baston and Roy Hibbert's draft rights to Indiana for Jermaine O'Neal and Nathan Jawai's draft rights.  The oft-injured O'Neal's struggles had finally worn too much on the Pacers, and Indy was ready to move in a different direction, especially if it meant getting both a point guard of Ford's caliber and a center prospect in Hibbert.

But while the Pacers continue to rebuild both their public image and basketball team, it's the Raps that have a shot to make waves in the East this year.  Alas, that is dependent on just how valuable JO still is.

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As a confessed long-time O'Neal booster, I've been rooting for him to be traded for some time now.  Sometimes, a player reaches a point where he simply needs a new environment to reinvigorate him, and it was clear that the time had come for JO in Indiana.  He wasn't thrilled with Jim O'Brien's system, and the constant strain of injury recovery and failing to meet expectations for the same people in Indiana took its toll on him.  While the guy undoubtedly made a few dumb comments about his future with the team during the summer of 2007, he remains generally reputed as a good teammate who plays hard and is a decent guy away from the court.

It also doesn't hurt that in his heyday, this guy played some excellent basketball.  He has gone to six All-Star games this decade, made one of the top three All-NBA teams three times and been a force at both ends of the floor.  He has put up two seasons averaging better than 20 points and 10 rebounds and two more of at least 20 points and 8 rebounds per game, including his 24.3-8.8 campaign in 2004-05.  The guy has blocked at least two shots per game in each of his last nine seasons, and when healthy, he has moved well defensively, playing his man effectively and doing a good job rotating in help.

This is a player who really became one of the league's brightest stars for a relatively short time and seemed last year to have already lost that stardom by age 29.  But if it's possible for him to get it back, playing alongside Chris Bosh in the front-court could be as good a way as any.  As consistent as anyone in the league over the last three seasons, Bosh has become one of the game's best face-up big men.  O'Neal could be just the complement for him to allow both players to be more effective.

Bosh operates very well from mid-range and the high post, but his stringbean body occasionally causes him trouble with his back to the basket.  Without an interior scoring presence beside him, he has been faced with all sorts of extra defensive attention, particularly come playoff time over the last two years.  A healthy O'Neal can create offense with a variety of quick and powerful moves on the low blocks, and he can also step out and hit the jumper from the wings as well.  Both bigs are unselfish players who are willing to move the basketball.  With high levels of agility between them for big men, both could engage in a lot of motion and help free each other away from the ball as well.  On the defensive end, Bosh's height and wingspan combined with O'Neal's shot-blocking abilities and general presence inside could allow the Raptors to stretch their perimeter defense with opponents faced with the knowledge that twin big men are lying in wait in the paint.

Whether Jermaine O'Neal can stay healthy remains a critical question.  But perhaps not feeling as though he will have to carry as much of the load on his own will help put less strain on him in the season to come. Being combined with another dominant big as well as one of the game's most promising point guards in Jose Calderon could be a great opportunity for Jermaine O'Neal to revive his career.  So long as he can do so while managing to avoid causing any threat to the defending champs, that revival would be a pleasure to see.