At one point, Jermaine O’Neal was one of the most promising big men in the NBA. He made his name with the Indiana Pacers, but like many other NBA superstars, J.O. also succumbed to wear and tear in his twilight years in the league.
J.O. knew it was coming
Since joining the Pacers in 2000, O’Neal never dipped to single digit in points per game. He averaged 18.6 points per outing in eight seasons in Indiana, 13.4 in two campaigns with the Miami Heat, and another 13.5 a night in a short stint with the Toronto Raptors. Simply put, J.O. was productive regardless of his role. However, all that changed in a snap when O’Neal signed with the Boston Celtics in 2010.
From being the Heat’s starting center in 70 games the previous season, O’Neal, who shot an impressive 52.9% from the field, had a drastic overall drop when he arrived in Boston. After 14 seasons of high-level performance, O’Neal’s body wore out. Subsequently, he could tell that his mind was also dealing with the same dilemma.
“Those two years [in Boston] were very difficult for me, because not only did I feel like I was wearing down physically, I was wearing down mentally,” O’Neal said in 2014 via Grantland. “That was the first time in my life I felt myself starting to break away a little bit.”
A hope cut short
What O’Neal suspected turned out to be true. His debut season with the Celtics marked the beginning of the end of his illustrious career. Plagued with injuries, O’Neal only logged 5.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in his two seasons with the C’s.
In 2013, O’Neal found a glimmer of hope when he played for a fellow former Pacer, Mark Jackson, in Golden State. Despite the reduced role, J.O. felt alive again. However, it didn’t last long because O’Neal did not appreciate how the Warriors blamed Jackson when the team failed to make it past the first round in two consecutive seasons.
“This fan base, this organization is first class, and obviously my teammates are great, as well. But the No. 1 reason that I will come back and play another year is because of Coach Jackson. I’m absolutely, 100% positive about that…To me, [firing Jackson] it’s one of the most unfair things that I’ve seen in a long time,” O’Neal said.
Devastated with how things played out, O’Neal decided that the dramatic Game 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers would be his final NBA appearance. Looking back, it’s hard not to feel bad knowing that had O’Neal stayed for one more year; he would’ve won an NBA championship.