The Phoenix Suns signed 16-year NBA veteran Jermaine O'Neal to a one year, $1.35 million deal yesterday (the veteran minimum for a player of his service years). O'Neal becomes the Suns' longest-tenured NBA veteran, doubling the service years of the next guy on the list - Sebastian Telfair, 8 years.
O'Neal was named to 6 consecutive NBA all-star games, all with the Indiana Pacers, the last of which coming in 2007. He has career averages of 13.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, and is sixth among active NBA players in career blocked shots (1,702). His defensive abilities are stellar, even beyond the box scores with 63.1 career defensive win shares (per www.basketball-reference.com).
But long before the all-star nods ended, O'Neal has had trouble staying healthy. Since the start of the 2004-05 season, O'Neal has played in only 460 of a possible 722 games over 9 seasons. His healthiest recent season was 3 years ago, playing 70 games for a struggling Miami Heat team alongside youngster Michael Beasley.
So you shouldn't be surprised when a player in the twilight of his career, after nine frustrating years battling one injury or another, chooses the chance at the fountain of youth over winning a championship ring.
"I always knew the training staff was phenomenal," O'Neal said in a teleconference with Phoenix media yesterday. "That's the word around the league among players. They really take the body and put three, four years on it by the things they do to the body."
In fact, that's just what he did when getting the now-popular Regenokine (also known as Orthokine) treatment in Germany this spring, at the same time as Grant Hill. Many an NBA player with degenerating knees has now tried that procedure in the past couple of years, with so far unproven results. Players swear by it, but players also wear those rubber bracelets too.
Hill raved about the Suns' training staff, and the evidence supporting the Suns trainers' success is much longer and more trustworthy than the ____kine procedure. If O'Neal is going to have one more relatively healthy and productive season, the best odds are in Phoenix.
Michael Redd scored 10 points per game as a backup SG after missing most of the previous two seasons. Grant Hill got healthy for the first time in years, going from near-retirement to 5 good seasons in Phoenix and 1-2 more productive years before he's done. Shaquille O'Neal went from washed-up and injured to making another NBA All-Star game (and then washed up and injured again, once he left Phoenix). Antonio McDyess was near retirement as well, before getting healthy in Phoenix and playing another several good seasons. And we all know Steve Nash's body was a constant battle as well.
Enter Jermaine O'Neal to the NBA's fountain of youth.
That's what he based his decision on, rather than a chance at a ring after having tried that in Boston the last two years. The only other time Jermaine O'Neal was a true unrestricted free agent (he'd previously signed huge extensions), he signed for the MLE to play alongside the Big Three in Boston.
"[The Big Three] are at a position in their career, and I'm kinda at the same position," O'Neal said in 2010, per espn/boston. "Obviously, those guys have a ring, but they want another one. I don't have a ring and I want one.
"Their hunger, their focus are at a different level. There're other good teams out there that I looked at that I could compete for a championship with. But these guys just came off an NBA Finals appearance, and in 2008 they won one. They know what it takes to get there, and really, when thinking about it and talking to my family, we thought this was the best fit for me."
Two years later, things have changed. Now, he just wants to stay healthy to play one more season without dealing with injuries. He's certainly ahead of the game by getting in his best condition in years this summer, and looking five years younger lately (corroborated by Jared Dudley last month via twitter).
The procedure in Germany has given him a chance to do lower-body training that he had not done for about five years. He has also done cleansing and dieting over the summer.
"I have a different type of lift right now," said O'Neal. "I have a different type of quickness right now. A lot of people may say it's the procedure, but I say it's the work I put in."
But everyone looks good in the summer, because they're not playing NBA basketball. Pickup games and workouts are a whole different thing. Michael Redd felt good last summer, but took most of the season to catch up to the NBA game again. Brandon Roy is apparently tearing it up on the court this summer, and got himself a 2-year $10-million deal. But this is the same guy who had to retire from the NBA because of his knees.
Can Jermaine O'Neal stay healthy this season in Phoenix?
If so, he will be better than Robin Lopez in limited minutes. While Lopez had promise as a rebounder, shot blocker and defensive stalwart, O'Neal has absolutely proven it over 16 seasons. Even last season, O'Neal's rebound rate and block rate per significantly higher than Lopez. He even ended the season with more 'defensive win shares' than Lopez, despite playing only 25 games to Lopez' 64. Yes, O'Neal is a better backup center than Robin Lopez, even at this age.
If you're hoping for Suns wins, better hope O'Neal found the fountain of youth.