Like so many veterans before him, Jermaine O’Neal came to Phoenix in search of rejuvenation. He had spent his previous two seasons languishing in Boston with seemingly insurmountable injury woes. The allure of the storied Phoenix Suns’ training staff and miracles they had worked on other veteran’s bodies was strong, and so he signed on with the Suns for the veteran’s minimum to be their backup center.
With the help of the Suns’ trainers O’Neal played in 55 games this year. That total is the second highest he has played in the last 10 seasons. O’Neal’s injury problems were not only just a recent concern. Considering the fact that he has played 70 or more games only six times in his sixteen seasons, the word chronic seems appropriate to describe Jermaine’s injury history.
When he was on the court this season, O’Neal looked quite spry. He moved well for a 34-year old 16-year veteran and provided the Suns with a strong post presence. According to MySynergySports, O’Neal ranked 14th in the NBA in post defense, allowing only 0.63 points per play to opponents. On offense, he was the Suns’ best post scorer other than Luis Scola. Overall, the Suns relied on O’Neal for shot blocking, rebounding, and most importantly, toughness.
The man he backed up, Marcin Gortat, is a very talented player. No one would deny that. But the Polish Hammer has a tendency to back down from physical competition. We’ve seen him crumble time and time again opponents like Dwight Howard and Utah’s fearsome frontcourt. On the days when Gortat wasn’t up to the task, O’Neal stepped in and played tough. Despite his age and the NBA mileage on his legs, Jermaine never backed down from an opponent. When he played, he played hard with all of his emotion right at the surface. This explains why Jermaine was whistled for 12 technical fouls, tied for eighth most in the league and trailing only DeMarcus Cousins for most technicals per game.
Those techs were also indicative of O’Neal’s frustration with the Suns’ season as a whole. Though he didn’t play much in a Celtic’s uniform, O’Neal had still been a part of a veteran-laden locker room in Boston for the last two years and the team had been a serious contender in the East. Before that he played for two playoff teams in Miami. And before that, he played in Indiana for eight years during which time the Pacers made the playoffs in six straight seasons.
The point I’m getting at here is that O’Neal had never really been part of a rebuilding team before this season. In his last two years with the Pacers, Indiana missed the playoffs, but they were more a team in decline in the wake of the Artest Melee than a team in full rebuilding mode. Rebuilding means a lot of losing. It certainly did this year for Phoenix. It also means rotations, minutes, and team objectives are in constant flux. Flux is frustrating to a veteran no matter how you look at it.
From an outside perspective, it seemed like O’Neal did not enjoy the experience of playing for a cellar-dwelling team. This year was really a catch-22 for Jermaine. On one hand, he was happy to be healthy and playing productively in the league once again. On the other he was exceedingly frustrated with his team’s lack of success and direction. That frustration boiled over during the Suns’ coaching transition from Alvin Gentry to Lindsey Hunter.
At the time, O’Neal was clearly unhappy for a variety of reasons, all of which he chose to air in a heated argument with GM Lance Blanks. Both men backed off the spat afterwards, writing it off as a clearing of the air, but clearly, O’Neal was not happy for one reason or another with Lindsey Hunter’s appointment.
After Hunter took over, Jermaine continued to play hard when he was healthy. But when Marcin Gortat went down, O’Neal was away from the team dealing with his daughter’s illness. That paved the way for the newly acquired Hamed Haddadi to get minutes and contribute enough to play over O’Neal in games down the stretch.
The Suns’ season ended on an impressive run of losing. In the same way, O’Neal was stuck on the bench when he could have been asserting himself and the team’s top center. The way the season ended does not bode well for O’Neal’s return to the Suns next year. While he is more talented than Haddadi, the Suns might still prefer the Iranian to O’Neal for a variety of reasons. Despite his rejuvenation, O’Neal still missed a large number of games to injury this season. The team would not be wrong to want a more reliable backup.
But the Suns may not be O’Neal’s preferred destination either. Having proved that he can still be productive, he may try to land a veteran minimum deal with a contender and make one final playoff run before hanging up his hi-tops for good.
Whatever happens, O’Neal proved he can still play and be productive in a limited role. As frustrating as this season might have been, Jermaine still got exactly what he wanted out of it. I would say the same for the Suns, except there’s no proof they actually knew what they wanted at any point this year.