In order to find the solution to the Portland Trail Blazers' lack of bench production and rim protection this summer – aside from attempting a lopsided trade to rectify the problem longterm with $11.6 million available in cap space – the organization may have to take the blast from the past route and explore the possibility of bringing back Jermaine O'Neal.
O'Neal, 34, was taken by Portland in the 1996 NBA Draft with the 17th overall selection. The 17-year vet would play four seasons with the Trail Blazers before being dealt to the Indiana Pacers where he went on to rack up six consecutive All-Star appearances.
After spending eight seasons in Indiana, knee injuries hampered him in Toronto, Miami and Boston, threatening the tenure of his NBA career.
A trip to Germany, last June, to visit Dr. Peter Wehling for Orthokine therapy on both knees and the excellent care of the Phoenix Suns training staff translated to the 6-11 center revitalizing his body, posting numbers of 8.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.4 blocks in 18.7 minutes per game as a strong reserve for the Suns during the 2012-13 season.
The current Trail Blazer roster is absent of a veteran with the specific skill set such as O'Neal's, and he's all for returning to Portland to provide his services.
“I'm very open to Portland. They're definitely a team I'm looking forward to having talks with this summer,” O'Neal, an unrestricted free agent come July 1, told CSNNW.com. “LaMarcus [Aldridge] and Damian [Lillard] along with [Nicolas] Batum are some great pieces to build around. All they need to do is shore up the bench and add a paint presence on defense and they'll be right there. It's hard to put that type of stress on your starting five and I know I can help ease some of that stress.”
The Trail Blazers had three players in the top 10 in minutes played per game – Damian Lillard (38.6), Nicolas Batum (38.5), and LaMarcus Aldridge (37.7). Their bench averaged a league-worst 18.5 points a game, though that number rose immensely post All-Star break.
They were second to last in the league, allowing opponents to shoot 47 percent from the field and fourth to last giving up 40.6 points in the paint per game.
Although the offseason is still young for O'Neal, he has his mind set on a handful of teams he feels he can make an immediate impact on and the Trail Blazers are one of the teams at the top of his list.
“Portland is a team I have to look at this summer. That city has always been in my heart because one: Mr. [Paul] Allen gave me my opportunity, and two: that city took me in as their second child,” he explained. “I didn't play for two or three years but you couldn't tell. The organization and the fans really allowed me to grow at my own pace. It's a special place to me. I met my wife in Portland. At this point for me, it's all about competing and winning and the Blazers are doing those things.”
Not only does O'Neal fit what the Trail Blazers need on the court, he also fits what they need off of it – a mentor to their young big man, Meyers Leonard.
“I like Meyers,” he said. “He's an athletic talent that is going to get even better in this league. But I think I can help him become a better defender, rebounder, shot blocker. That's part of the job, veterans helping out the younger players. I did that here in Phoenix and that is something I would do in Portland if signed there.”
CSNNW.com reached out to Leonard to get his reaction to O'Neal's comments and the 21-year-old, 7-1 center was taken aback.
“That is very humbling to hear,” Leonard told CSNNW.com. “When we played against the Suns this year, he told me he thinks I have a lot of potential and that I just have to keep working hard. Growing up in Robinson [Illinois] he was my favorite player in his prime in Indianapolis. I was able to go to two or three games, which was huge for me growing up, and I really liked watching him play. So to have a guy like him, who has been quite successful in this league, have those things to say about me is pretty cool.”
And O'Neal isn't concerned with starting or coming off the bench.
“You can be impactful with any amount of minutes as long as you play hard,” he said. “There's guys in this league that get up for starting games, but can't finish them. I'm a player that's always been supportive of my teammates regardless of what role I have on the team. I have no animosity. I just want to win and help my teammates get better each and every day.”
O'Neal is at a good place in his life right now. That wasn't the case a couple of months ago. Despite having a bounce-back season in Phoenix, a tumultuous personal life confronted him throughout the year. His 49-year-old aunt died of an aneurism earlier in the season, he had a scare in late January dealing with an irregular heartbeat, and his daughter, 13-year-old Asjia, had to have open heart surgery to repair a leaky valve in early March.
Asjia's surgery was a success and O'Neal says she is doing just fine. Medication resolved his heart condition. In the midst of all that going on, O'Neal stayed focused and productive on the court as if there were nothing wrong.
“It was extremely difficult but you still have to be a professional,” O'Neal said. “I couldn't have predicted all of that off-the-court stuff would happen. It was unfortunate. But going into the season, I felt I had to prove to myself that I could play at a high level again. I knew that I still could play this game. I may not be able to give you 20 [points] a night, but I can give you 20 on any given night. Last season is just a testament to how strong my support system is more than anything else.”
O'Neal is going back to Germany for his yearly treatment in June to make sure he puts himself in position to have another high-volume season. He's already back in the gym training, after only taking a week off since the Suns concluded their season almost two weeks ago.
This is all due to O'Neal wanting to reach that 20-year mark, and then taking it year-to-year from there. He realizes that the older his body gets, it's a must that he remains on top of his game during the offseason.
And that could benefit the Trail Blazers next season.
“I saw Mr. Allen in Phoenix earlier this past season and I went up to him and I told him I'm forever grateful for him taking a chance on a 17-year-old kid out of South Carolina,” O'Neal said. “If things work out where I do end up in Portland, I want the fans and the organization to know that I'm going to be physically better than I was last year. To revisit a place that means a lot to me, I'll have to say I'm looking forward to it.”