NEW ORLEANS – Privately, Jermaine O'Neal had rooted hard for the summer trade proposals that would've sent him into the waiting arms of Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. Behind O'Neal, he had left a season when the Pacers stopped playing for deposed coach Rick Carlisle and free-fell out of the playoffs, and there arose such an inevitability about his leaving the Pacers.
Pacers GM Larry Bird wanted Marcus Williams, but the Nets wouldn't part with the young point guard as part of a package with Richard Jefferson and Nenad Krstic. Bird wanted Andrew Bynum, but the Lakers were willing only to give back Lamar Odom.
So nothing happened and O'Neal seethed through summer. There was a strange episode with reporters in Los Angeles where his words about wanting out of town, he still says, "were edited way out of context." The Pacers hired Jim O'Brien, and he kept hearing about running the ball and shooting three-pointers and wondered how that was building around him in the middle. He watched the Pacers sign a Lithuanian League MVP, Kareem Rush, and an Orlando bench-warmer, Travis Diener, and wondered who are these guys?
"People think that when you're going to build around (three-pointers), you're going to forget about the inside," O'Neal said. "… When we went into this direction, and looked at some of the signings we made this summer, I didn't really know the guys. But getting the opportunity to play with (them), it's all really started to make sense to me.
"You don't have to have a team full of brand names, but just have a team that's going to go out and play hard together. I think that's the one thing that's going to separate us from the last couple years is that we're going to play hard every single possession."
Give O'Neal this: He isn't pouting. For now, he's trying hard to make this work. Maybe it'll never work here. People have the Pacers pegged as a lottery team, but O'Neal, 29, is trying his best to play the part of the franchise player. This offense, he tells you, will work for him. No longer are the Pacers asking him to grind in the low post every possession because, as he said, "That's hard on your body over an 82-game season." O'Brien wants to use O'Neal's ability to pass the ball, wants to spread the defense with those shooters, and get him the ball in different spots.
"If anything," O'Brien said, "Jermaine O'Neal is expected to do more offensively this year than in the past."
Rush and Diener are perfect to play long ball. Already, these Pacers have had a 101-shot preseason game, including 11 of 26 three-pointers. The three exiled Golden State Warriors – Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy and Ike Diogu – have returned looking bigger and stronger. Across the roster, there are a lot of Pacers who've been bounced around in basketball, who have something to prove. All together, they have to win over a community in Indianapolis that feels betrayed over the franchise's character failings these past few years.
"Winning always brings people back," O'Neal said, and he's right, but ultimately you wonder if the Pacers can do enough of it to win its franchise player back for good. He can opt out of the final two years of his contract this summer, but no one believes he can find that $44 million coming to him on the market.
The Nets still are a distinct possibility, but sources say Bird isn't that enamored with Jefferson and his contract. With young forward Danny Granger, he believes he has a younger, less expensive model. Nevertheless, the Pacers still could do that trade and ship Jefferson elsewhere, but they're giving it one more shot with him. For now, anyway, O'Neal's giving it another shot with them.
"People are going to talk (about me leaving) because No. 1, I do have an opt (out) in my contract, and people think I'll opt out next year if the team isn't doing well," he said. "But I don't believe we will be struggling, because of our philosophy and the type of coaching we have this year.
"It is a possibility that I'm going to be traded but … I told the guys that this is where I'm at, where I want to be, and I'm going to play hard every night."
For now, O'Neal takes his final leap of faith with the Indiana Pacers. Another year, another fresh start for this spiraled franchise. He's right. Winning always brings back the people, and maybe, just maybe, that includes Jermaine O'Neal too.