Should Jermaine O’Neal be Unhappy?

On Saturday, ESPN.com reported that Jermaine O’Neal is unhappy. After a loss to the Mavericks, O’Neal noticed that his team is not exactly a title contender this year.

“We’re a very average team right now,” O’Neal told the Indianapolis Star. “We’re going to be average until we decide as players that we want to win and do the right things we’re supposed to do to win. If we don’t do it, we’re going to mingle around .500, get in the playoffs and then be out.”

If we look at the Indiana after 34 games – which you can see HERE — clearly the Pacers are not meeting O’Neal’s expectations. O’Neal is holding up his end of the bargain, putting up the best numbers of his career. Many of his teammates, though, are not producing. In fact, this team is only scoring 99.2 points per possession while allowing 101.0. So perhaps O’Neal should be happy that the Pacers currently have a winning record, since their offensive and defensive efficiency suggests that should not be the case. Despite their good fortune thus far, O’Neal is still not happy.

Perhaps he is thinking of how good the Pacers were just a few short years ago. In 2003-04 the Pacers won 61 games, the best record in the regular season that year. From that team the Pacers still employ O’Neal, Jeff Foster, Al Harrington (who left and returned), and Jamaal Tinsley. Each of these players is still part of the rotation and each is offering roughly similar performances to what we saw in 2003-04. O’Neal, Foster, and Tinsley are still above average – although O’Neal is better and Tinsley is worse – and Harrington is still below average, a point detailed in the following posts:

Do we under-value scorers and should Al Harrington cash in?

Al Harrington is Like Andrei Kirilenko?

Al Harrington Finally Signs

Harrington’s Not Stojakovic Either

The Indiana Pacers in 2005-06

Okay, enough on Harrington.

The key difference between the current Pacers and the 2003-04 team is not changes in the productivity of those who stayed, but the difference between those who departed and the new players who have arrived.

The one key departure since 2003-04 was Reggie Miller. As detailed this summer, Miller was a very productive player throughout his career. In 2003-04 he produced 9.4 wins and posted a 0.199 Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48].

Miller played shooting guard, a position now occupied by Stephen Jackson. In addition to behavioral issues, Jackson is not offering the Pacers any wins production. So this one change at the shooting guard spot has been significant.

Additionally the Pacers have a problem at the forward positions. This summer the Pacers invested $35.3 million in re-acquiring Al Harrington, a player who has never been an above average performer. Harrington replaced Peja Stojakovic, who in turn replaced Ron Artest. Given the career performances of these players, these moves were taking the Pacers backwards.

To see the significance of this move, let’s look back at the 2003-04 campaign. That year the Pacers had at power forward and small forward a combination of O’Neal, Austin Croshere, Harrington, and Ron Artest. This season the Pacers still have O’Neal and Harrington, but the only other forward receiving significant minutes is Danny Granger. Although Granger is capable of being as productive as Artest, there is no one in the line-up this year who is as productive as Croshere at power forward. This departure has forced the Pacers to frequently use Harrington or Granger at power forward and shift either Jackson or Marquis Daniels to small forward.

Harrington is capable of being an average small forward (although not this year), but his inability to rebound consistently costs the team when he shifts to power forward. And Daniels and Jackson are unproductive at shooting guard this year, and even less productive when moved to small forward.

When we look at Indiana’s roster this year we see why this team is, in the words of O’Neal, “very average.” Although the Pacers are receiving outstanding levels of production from O’Neal and Foster (which was expected), the Pacers are receiving very little from many of the players at shooting guard and the forward spots. Of course, this lack of production – given what these players have done in the past – was also expected.

Given the past performance of the players on this roster, there is no reason for O’Neal to be upset. This team, as it’s currently constructed, should not have expected to contend for an NBA title this season.

I think O’Neal should take a lesson from the players on a team like the Milwaukee Bucks. No one on the Bucks is complaining about not contending for a title this season. Milwaukee’s players didn’t have this expectation and therefore they are not disappointed to be hovering around the 0.500 mark. Rather, they spend their days counting the money they collect playing basketball, which even if you lose more than you like, is still a really cool way to make a living.

- DJ

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