In his year and a half with the Celtics , Jermaine O’Neal played just 49 games and was on the court for only 1,001 minutes. He missed most of the 2010-11 season with a knee injury and on Monday, the team announced that he was going to have surgery to take care of a chronic degenerative wrist condition. O’Neal had wrist issues for years and they became worse after he took a fall in Dallas while trying to take a charge.
“Jermaine worked hard to get himself in condition to play this season despite his ongoing wrist issues,” said Danny Ainge in a statement. “He played through pain the entire year and gave us all he could, but unfortunately after the fall against Dallas there simply wasn’t anything else he could do. We appreciate his contributions to our team over the last two years.”
Make no mistake, O’Neal did play in pain and he played well during the 2011 playoffs, which almost made up for his lack of action during the regular season. The Celtics were hoping for a similar result this season, but they weren’t counting on it.
Ainge tried to trade him for David West during training camp and while he did provide some interior defense in his 20 minutes a night, there always seemed to be an internal battle between the player the team wanted him to be and the player he thought he still was. O’Neal responded to his critics in a fairly epic soliloquy back in December, although it was never really clear who those critics actually were.
“There’s a lot of misconception, a lot of debate, people that supposedly analyze the game,” he said. “When you analyze the game, you’ve got to know what position a team has players in. It’s easy to sit behind tables and say what you think, the fact of the matter with me here, Doc [Rivers ] has given a role. All the debate about whether I score, I probably won’t answer that anymore.
“That’s not my role. My role has been given to me and my role has been said, to be a defender, not offensively. The people out there that’s saying I’m struggling offensively. That’s not my concern. I think I’m in the top 10 in blocks. I’m probably leading the NBA in charges as a center. I’m starting to get my legs back as far as rebounding and getting my timing. If you want to judge me, judge me on that. Judge me on how I get out on the pick and roll and help the guards.
“If I’m not rebounding, I’m not blocking shots, I’m not taking charges, I’m not getting on the perimeter and helping the guards, then we have a conversation to have.”
O’Neal was right. The Celtics never asked him to score, and they were almost five points better defensively when he was on the court than when he was off, but it’s still unclear if he actually believed that being a defensive specialist was the best use of his time. Unfortunately for both him and the team, his days as a 20 and 10 guy were long over by the time he came to Boston.With the Celtics he was barely a 5 and 5 man.
His decision to have surgery ends his season and potentially ends his career. Still just 33 years old, O’Neal has spent almost half his life in the NBA, with 16 seasons under his belt.
In his prime he was one of the best players in the league, but his time with the Celtics was mostly one of frustration. Ainge spent $12 million ‘ double that once the luxury tax was collected ‘ and one can make the argument that Rasheed Wallace  was actually a better signing. Ainge has taken a lot or criticism over the last few years and his misuse of the mid-level exception is a glaring example.
The end for O’Neal has a touch of symbolism to it. The Celtics are going to get younger and the era of signing aging former stars to be role players is mercifully coming to a close. It’s likely that whoever they wind up signing won’t be nearly as good as O’Neal, but at least they’ll be able to get on the court.