Jermaine O'Neal an affordable insurance policy as backup center

Jermaine O'Neal has decided to take his talents to Phoenix for a minimum contract.

Jermaine O’Neal has decided to take his talents to Phoenix after agreeing to a minimum contract.

One of the jokes making the rounds yesterday was that both the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers added centers with marquee names to their roster, but while the Lakers acquired Dwight Howard the Suns merely signed an aging Jermaine O’Neal.

While sadly exemplifying the differences between where the two franchises are today, this move should not be seen as anything further than this: The Suns needed a backup center and they signed the most experienced one on the market to a minimum contract.

O’Neal, who will turn 34 before the season tips off, immediately becomes the oldest Sun on the roster and possesses twice as much NBA experience as Sebastian Telfair, previously the longest-tenured Sun with eight years in the league.

O’Neal has seen just about everything the NBA has to offer in those 16 seasons in which he has gone from a raw high school player riding the pine to a six-time All-Star to a player past his prime still on a max deal. In between he has played for contenders, lottery teams and has even been prominently involved in perhaps the ugliest event in NBA history.

Although it’s always possible that the Kobe treatment he had performed on both his knees this summer in Germany will revitalize him and make him something of a factor this season, in essence O’Neal is just a cheap insurance policy signed to fill out the roster.

Even after bringing on JO, I think the Suns should run with Channing Frye as Marcin Gortat’s backup at the center spot and then let Luis Scola and Markieff Morris share the power forward position. It would be a shame if the soon-to-be 34-year-old O’Neal took any developmental time away from the soon-to-be 23-year-old Morris with the Suns in the midst of a youth movement.

Yet O’Neal will most certainly be called upon with Frye expected to miss the beginning of the season and since some of those big men will inevitably miss some time due to injury.

It would also be difficult to complain about the price the Suns paid to acquire a player of O’Neal’s pedigree.

O’Neal will earn $1,352,181 being that he is a veteran with 10-plus years of experience, but due to a rule aimed to incentivize teams to sign veterans to minimum contracts rather than young players the team will only pay him the two-year veteran minimum salary of $854,389, with the league picking up the difference. The latter number is also what O’Neal will count against the Suns’ cap.

As Ryan Weisert wrote earlier in the week, the Suns did not have many solid options to choose from in selecting a backup center, and O’Neal was by far the most established option albeit a player who very well may be done.

Jared Dudley, for one, does not think so. JD spent some time with JO this summer at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas and came away impressed.

After news of the agreement hit Twitter, Dudley tweeted that O’Neal will bring a “great veteran presence” to the Suns.

Although in the past I have supported Kyrylo Fesenko for this roster spot due to the enormous size he brings that the other Suns big men lack, O’Neal is not a bad choice either so long as you realize the expectations should be kept low.

The Suns won’t need O’Neal to play at all when the rest of their bigs are healthy since it will be difficult enough to find time for their four regular big men, so really anything he provides is a bonus.

If the Suns’ training staff and the Kobe treatment revitalize O’Neal, then the Suns could perhaps possess five big men worthy of playing time, which is not a terrible problem to have.

O’Neal could also develop some minimal trade value, and he would be easy to deal to a contender due to the “minimum salary trade exception” that, as Larry Coon describes, “allows teams to acquire minimum-salary players without regard to salary matching under the Traded Player exception. When a team acquires multiple players in the same trade, it essentially ignores the incoming salary for all minimum-salary players, since they fall under the Minimum Salary exception.”

So basically once he’s eligible to be traded, the Suns could deal JO to a team over the cap for a draft pick without having to take back any players.

Unless an unexpected deal comes up, the Suns have now finished their work for the summer of 2012 since they are expected to stay at the roster minimum of 13.

By my salary calculations, I have the Suns at just under $51 million in salary for their 13 players, leaving about $7 mil to make moves during the season. Such a deal could involve taking on additional salary in a lopsided trade for a quality player or helping a team dump salary to stay below the tax for a package of draft picks.

The Suns also have Brad Miller’s contract to play with because so far as I have seen on the league’s transaction log, the Suns have yet to waive him. Miller has a $5.1 million cap number but only $848,000 is guaranteed, so acquiring his contract could provide a team with a good deal of immediate salary relief if they send the Suns an expiring contract and a pick in the transaction.

The Suns’ enviable cap situation will allow for lots of flexibility this season when most teams have at least hit the salary cap and in future years now that they have filled out their roster with a cheap veteran who will provide leadership while serving as an insurance policy for the Suns’ bigs so long as he can stay healthy himself.

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