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07-10-2003, 08:50 AM
O'Neal prefers easy East over wild West
By Terry Brown
NBA Insider
Thursday, July 10
Updated: July 10
9:07 AM ET


The Indiana Pacers gave Jermaine O'Neal 120 million reasons to forget about far away places like San Antonio, Miami and Denver, but it doesn't take too much of a reach to think that only three little letters may have been just as persuasive.


M. V. P.



O'Neal

"I admire Tim Duncan, because he put on his hard hat and said, 'I'm going to stick it out,'" O'Neal told the Indianapolis Star. "He was dedicated to one team and to winning a championship. Now he has two. That's what makes the really good players great. That was the difference. I said, OK, it would be easy for me to run to a team. Me and Tim Duncan could be an unbelievable partnership for years to come. It was a tough decision, but when it came down to it my love for my city and my team was more important than chasing a championship with another team."

And let's not forget that Duncan also has two MVP trophies to go along with his two titles.

In 2000, Jason Kidd averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 10.1 assists and two spg on 40 percent shooting.

In 2002, Kidd averaged 14.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 9.9 assists and 2.1 steals on 39 percent shooting.

Now, we can split hairs all day and run a lot more quotes out of the local paper on how O'Neal made his decision to stay in Indiana based on honor, respect, loyalty and in doing his best to do his duty to God and to Country.

But the reason Kidd went from 2000 all-star to 2002 almost MVP (he came in second that year to Duncan) had nothing to do with Kidd and everything to do with Phoenix and New Jersey. His points, rebounds, assists, steals and shooting percentages were nearly identical. But in the Western Conference, he was just another good player on just another good team in a great conference. After the trade that sent him to New Jersey after the 2001 season, he became the best player on the best team in a less-than-good conference.

The pond got smaller and, all of a sudden, the fish looked bigger.

O'Neal knew that Kidd might end up in San Antonio. He knows Alonzo Mourning might end up in Dallas. If things go right, Antoine Walker is traded out of Boston, Kenyon Martin gets his fill of New Jersey and P.J. Brown ditches New Orleans. Then, all O'Neal has to worry about is an undersized power forward who is content to grab 10 times as many rebounds as points in Detroit and, before you know it, the Pacers are in the Finals and he's on the MVP ballot.

Who's going to stop him in the paint?

Shareef Abdur-Rahim in Atlanta? Kenny Thomas in Philly?

At least Kidd had to compete with Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady in backcourt voting every all-star weekend. O'Neal has no peer in the paint in the Eastern Conference unless you're counting the ever-brittle Zydrunas Ilgauskas in Cleveland.

Which gives us, and him, at least 10 other reasons to stay in Indiana.

Here they are in no particular order: Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Elton Brand, Yao Ming, Pau Gasol, Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, Amare Stoudemire, Antawn Jamison and possibly, Michael Olowokandi, Karl Malone and Alonzo Mourning.

Only six or seven or maybe even eight of those 13 players are going to make the all-star team next season. Only two of them are going to start in that game. And only one of them is going to the NBA Finals.

Ooops.

Did we forget to mention the other O'Neal?

Shaquille O'Neal.

When he won his only MVP trophy in 2000, Shaq averaged 29.7 points per game. The following season, his scoring went down to 28.7. In the last two seasons, he's averaged 27 points per game. Also during that MVP season, he averaged 13.6 rebounds per game. Since then, his average has fallen to as low as 10.7.

This year, he's older, perhaps even heavier, and may be surrounded by two Hall of Famers not counting Kobe Bryant.

His numbers aren't getting any better.

On the other hand, Jermaine O'Neal went from Portland to Indiana three years ago and in less than one summer, went from averaging 3.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 0.8 blocks per game as a Blazer to averaging 12.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game as a Pacer.

He was voted the league's Most Improved Player the following season.

In his three years in Indiana, his scoring has gone from 12.9 ppg to 19.0 to 20.8. His shooting percentage has gone from 46 percent to 47 to 48.

Do the math.

His numbers are getting better.

This is the season in which, statistically speaking and all things considered, he becomes the pre-eminent O'Neal. The pre-eminent big man. If all things work out, the pre-eminent player in the NBA in the not too distant future.

But don't believe me. Ask San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

"He said he would have loved for me to play for him, but he agreed that what I'm trying to do for my career, I'm better off with Indiana," O'Neal said in the Star. "He thinks I have the capability of doing what Tim Duncan has done."

In another article on Jermaine O'Neal in the very same paper, get used to this, he talks, again, of truth, liberty and being able to assume control of an entire NBA Franchise . . . the American way.

"I'm not at that level, but that's something Isiah did, Michael Jordan, and talking to (Spurs coach) Gregg Popovich, that's something Tim Duncan has always done," O'Neal said. "I didn't know how to do that until after Game 6, and a lot of that was out of anger. I should be able to go to them (management) when I'm not angry . . . The important thing is, we have to get to a point where we have guys you don't need to talk to about doing their jobs in the playoffs. Why should they play here? They're not only being selfish to the team, but to the city and the organization. People pay good money to watch us play. I just can't accept losing again in the first round."

And, if he ever really needed one more reason, as an Indiana Pacer, Jermaine O'Neal may never have to worry about losing in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs ever again.