Pacers trade O'Neal? Probably, it's no deal
There would be some coincidence if, indeed, Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal is shipped to the Los Angeles Lakers to play alongside Kobe Bryant. After all, no pair of players has been more bizarrely uncertain of their desire to be traded this summer than Kobe Bryant and O'Neal.
Kobe Bryant's trade-me/Laker-for-life escapades have been well-documented. O'Neal's aren't nearly as whimsical or controversial as Kobe Bryant's have been, but still, the big guy's words have followed an odd trajectory -- he told reporters that if the Pacers are rebuilding, he'd like to be dealt to the Nets or Los Angeles Lakers. He was also quoted as saying that Larry Bird was trying to gut the Los Angeles Lakers in his trade demands, but then O'Neal denied ever making that statement. By the end of Tuesday, he was firmly stating his desire to remain in Indiana.
That might not be up to O'Neal. His waning trade value might be what keeps him with the Pacers.
Once the Timberwolves moved Kevin Garnett, most around the league expected that O'Neal would be the next trade target. But as difficult as Garnett was to move because of his contract, a trade for O'Neal will be even tougher. That's because, dollar-wise, O'Neal is not far behind Garnett on the league's pay chart. He has three years remaining on his deal, at $63 million. And, like Garnett, he has some sway over where he is dealt -- he has an opt-out after next year, so he can threaten to bolt if he doesn't like his new home.
The bigger difference is that O'Neal is not nearly as good as Garnett. He shot just 43.6 percent last year, and the 19.4 points per game he averaged were his lowest in five years. True, he has become a better shot-blocker and passer as he has matured, but, despite the fact that he is only 28, you have to wonder about his injury history. O'Neal missed 13 games last year, 32 the previous year and 28 three years ago.
The funny thing is that O'Neal's phantom statement about the Pacers not being able to get a deal done because Bird wants to gut the teams he is making a deal with looks to be true. In any O'Neal discussion, the Pacers are asking for more in return than the Timberwolves got for Garnett. But O'Neal is not Garnett.
One general manager wonders about O'Neal, "What's a fair-market value for a guy with that contract and injury history, coming off a bad year like that? He's an All-Star, in the East. But where does he rank on the list of forwards in the league? Not even Top 10."
In fact, look at the All-NBA voting from last year. O'Neal got one measly vote, exactly as many as Tyson Chandler. That doesn't mean Chandler is as good as O'Neal, but it is evidence that O'Neal's status in the league has slipped, even though the Pacers aren't treating him that way in trade talks. Among centers and power forwards in All-NBA voting, O'Neal was tied for 15th. Garnett was sixth.
To answers the GM's question, we can say for sure that O'Neal's market value is not at the Richard Jefferson/Nenad Krstic level, which is the package the Pacers discussed earlier with the Nets. That deal is off the table, because New Jersey realizes that's way too much to give up for O'Neal. In fact, though it is not quite possible to compare the two (because the Timberwolves sought and got payroll relief), it could be argued that the Jefferson/Krstic package for O'Neal would be better than what Minnesota took in for Garnett.
The market for O'Neal is also not at the Lamar Odom/Andrew Bynumlevel. That's the package the Pacers want from the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Lakers know that, and kudos to them for not making a deal simply because they're under pressure to do so. They want to give up only Kwame Brown and Andrew Bynum. That's not quite enough to get O'Neal, but the only other option for the Los Angeles Lakers is to give up Odom in a deal for O'Neal. That really doesn't do the team any good.
It's likely that the Pacers will lower the asking price for O'Neal as the summer wears on. They'll probably never lower it to Brown/Andrew Bynum status, though, and (unless some third team gets involved) it's difficult to see any other way for the Los Angeles Lakers and Pacers to work out a deal that suits all sides -- the Los Angeles Lakers don't really have other assets to bolster the Brown/Andrew Bynum package to the point at which it makes sense for the Pacers to pull the trigger. L.A. just does not have the kind of young players other teams are after. Indiana does not want to pack its already loaded roster with so-so prospects like Jordan Farmar and Ronny Turiaf.
So, O'Neal can waffle on his future with the Pacers. Or he can insist he's been clear all along, and only wants a trade if the team is rebuilding (which O'Neal says it is not). If O'Neal is sticking with his current stance, the one where he wants to stay in Indy and not be traded, he probably will get his wish. But not because the Pacers haven't tried.
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