Yet again, Pacers captain Jermaine O'Neal is ready, willing and able to clean up the mess left by a Ron Artest meltdown
Did Ron Artest do the Pacers a favor by demanding to be traded? The troubled star's latest escapade--going to the media to voice his desire to play elsewhere before telling the Indiana front office--was the final, damning evidence that he's too unreliable to be the player to lead the Pacers to a championship. "He doesn't exist in our locker room," Indiana captain Jermaine O'Neal said last week. "He's somebody who chose not to be with us, and guys are really p----- about this."
However, Artest's outrageous act--a trade request communicated out of the blue in the Dec. 11 Indianapolis Star--has also had an unintended salutary effect: It has galvanized support in the Pacers' locker room for the 27-year-old O'Neal, who has emerged as the unquestioned face and voice of the franchise. His status boost began in 2004--05. After returning from a 25-game suspension for his role in the notorious melee at Auburn Hills (a fracas fueled by Artest), the four-time All-Star overcame a late-season shoulder injury to lead the Pacers to the second round of the playoffs, during which Indiana pushed a superior Pistons team to six games. Though the injury has been reported as a right shoulder sprain, O'Neal says that it was, in fact, a partially torn rotator cuff. "Every doctor told me not to play because it could be career-threatening," he says.
O'Neal's role as the team leader, though, has been cemented this season by his swift, decisive condemnation of Artest, which left no wiggle room for the return of the 26-year-old forward. "If the [front office] feels like it can work," said O'Neal of speculation that Artest could be retained, "then we will have another problem." Count Doc Rivers among those impressed by O'Neal's newfound show of authority. "You don't see that a lot in our league," says the Celtics coach. "I think he's really becoming a team leader."
Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh agrees and cites more evidence. "Where Jermaine has changed is that he's walking the way he's talking now," Walsh says. "He came to camp two weeks early; he comes in every single day of practice and works hard; and he plays hard in the games. He's had a good effect on our team; and I think it shows a gigantic jump in his maturity."
That faith in O'Neal represents something of a U-turn for the Indiana front office. Last summer, even after O'Neal's courageous performance down the stretch, the Pacers, two league executives told SI, were so infatuated with Chris Bosh that they offered anyone on the roster for the Raptors' 7-footer, at 21 already a frontcourt star.
Now in his sixth season as a Pacer, O'Neal has no problem with the trade talk. "If I can't lead my team or get the assistance from management to help lead my team, then I shouldn't be there," he says. "If we don't get to the championship, then put it on my shoulders. I didn't get the job done."
Despite the Pacers' maddeningly inconsistent play, which has included a home loss to the lowly Hawks and a 32-point thrashing by the Bobcats, O'Neal has gotten his job done. In the absence of the other O'Neal-- Shaq-- Indiana's 6'11" version was the East's top center during the first quarter of the season, averaging 22.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks through Sunday. Although he is ideally suited to the four, O'Neal has recently been a more aggressive presence in the low post, as indicated by his 7.6 free throw attempts per game, 3.1 more than his career average. For that, he attributes his off-season conditioning, in which he focused on strengthening his abs. "My core was one of the weaker parts of my body, so I would start fading late in games," he says. "What I've found so far is that I stay strong. I'm able to finish games; I'm not shooting fadeaway jumpers; I'm making strong moves all the time."
As for Indiana's next move with Artest, as of Monday night Walsh had yet to pull the trigger. Teams that had spoken with Indiana say that the Pacers weren't necessarily looking for a star in return but rather young talent and expiring contracts that will help reduce their $79 million payroll. Walsh says he's looking to improve the bottom line while building the team around O'Neal, who eagerly embraces his new, enhanced profile--with a caveat. "I'm one of the best in the game," says O'Neal. "But a superstar? You are only a superstar after you win the championship."
Pat Applies Heat to Shaq