by Conrad Brunner
May 30, 2003
By the Numbers: Averaged a career-high 20.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.31 blocked shots in 77 games. … Ranked 19th in the NBA in scoring, fourth in rebounding and seventh in blocks. Field goal percentage (.484) was 18th. … Only player in East, and one of three in NBA, to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. … First Pacers player ever to be named NBA Player of the Month twice (January and April). … Entered the season with a .621 career free-throw percentage, but improved to .731. … Entered the season 1-of-24 from the 3-point line in his career, but went 7-of-21 for the season, including 5-of-10 in the last 13 games. … Led the East and was sixth in the league with 43 double-doubles. He and Clark Kellogg are the only Pacers players to record at least 40 double-doubles in consecutive seasons. … Second Pacers player ever to produce a triple-double with blocked shots (18 points, 11 rebounds, 10 blocks) against Toronto on Jan. 22. Only other such triple-double came in 1972 (Darnell Hillman). … Second Pacers player ever to be elected an All-Star starter by the fans, he produced a double-double (10 points and a team-leading 10 rebounds), adding four blocked shots and two steals in the game. … The 77 appearances were the second-most in his career. … His NBA efficiency rating of 23.74 ranked 10th in the league.
Playoffs: Set team NBA playoff record by averaging 17.5 rebounds in the first-round loss to Boston, including a single-game record 22 in Game 5. Averaged 19.2 rebounds in the last five games of the series. … Averaged team-high 22.8 points on .467 shooting, as well as 3.0 blocked shots.
Plus-Minus: Ranked fifth during the regular season at plus 182 (plus 2.4 per game). Ranked sixth during the playoffs at minus 15 (minus 2.5).
Contract Status: Free agent.
Quote: “I'll look at San Antonio with Tim Duncan, I'll look at Orlando with Tracy McGrady and I'll look at Indiana with Reggie Miller. That's three great players. When you get into a situation like that, you've got to look at the supporting cast and the type players that they have. The last team standing is the team that has the best supporting cast. I want to have the best opportunity. I understand Reggie is coming to the end of his career and I want to know that, once he leaves, this team is still in good hands as far has having two, three, four more punches. That's really my biggest concern.”
Analysis: Continued his stunning emergence into the elite among NBA big men, producing one of the best all-around seasons in franchise history. Played through pain both physical (missing just five games despite lingering pain in his knee, ankle and elbow) and mental (his stepfather was hospitalized with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in late February but O’Neal did not miss a game). In the process, became a stronger leadership figure in the locker room. Also worked hard to contain his emotions on the court and became much more diplomatic in his dealings with officials. Frustrated by double- and triple-teams by the Nets in last year’s playoffs, he vowed to add new elements to his game, and the results were impressive. He was a much better perimeter shooter and passer (his 155 assists obliterated his previous career high), and improved his free-throw shooting by more than 100 percentage points. Remarkable quickness and dexterity in the post makes him virtually un-guardable by one defender. Can use both hands equally well, meaning he can turn to either shoulder from either block. Though his shot-blocking numbers declined slightly, his overall defense improved, as well. After trying to play at more than 250 pounds in 2001-02, returned to his more comfortable weight of 242 last season and was better able to exploit his athleticism. And he’s 24 years old.
Crystal Ball: O’Neal’s career has taken flight since the Pacers rolled the dice and traded popular All-Star power forward Dale Davis to Portland for the unproven O’Neal in the summer of 2000. He has been an All-Star (twice), Most Improved Player and third team All-NBA (twice). The signature of his status came when he was named to the core group for the U.S. team that hopes to represent the country in the 2004 Olympics. Under the terms of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Pacers can offer a longer-term contract (seven years as opposed to six) and more money (roughly $30 million over the life of the deal) than any other team. It remains to be seen how his frustration over a third consecutive first-round playoff exit will manifest itself in his decision-making process, but the odds remain stacked in favor of the Pacers.
Final Grade: A.