Celtics center Jermaine O’Neal has had indications for years that his basketball career was coming to a close. His body has been betraying him, especially after he refused surgery for a torn meniscus and continued to play while with the Pacers.
O’Neal is angry about the perception that he has succumbed to minor injuries, and he says his left wrist condition could mean the end of his career at age 33. One thing O’Neal’s situation should teach us is that even if you enter the draft at a very young age, it doesn’t mean you will play an extra long time.
Tracy McGrady is hanging on as a reserve with the Hawks. Rashard Lewis has been reduced to essentially a bloated contract with the Wizards. Darius Miles, Jonathan Bender, and Robert Swift are out of the league.
For an 11-year stretch (1995-2006), the NBA was open to all comers, including high school prospects who believed they could cash in on three or four maximum contracts over the course of an NBA career. But that has happened only with Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. The rest of the high school prospects were never really ready for the NBA, or, like O’Neal, Miles, and Bender, their bodies betrayed them.
The pounding of 82 games is the same whether you are 19 or 23, and the NBA makes no promises when it comes to longevity. O’Neal is considering career-ending wrist surgery, a procedure that would fuse the bones in his left wrist together to ensure that he will have full use but would also reduce mobility. He said he is unsure whether he wants to continue playing, even though he has declined steadily over the past few years.
At 33, players such as Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Tim Duncan were at the latter stages of their primes. But for many of those who entered the league months after high school graduation, 33 is antique.
“People don’t really understand how difficult that decision [to have surgery] is when you’ve literally played [NBA] basketball half your life,’’ said O’Neal, who was a first-round pick of the Trail Blazers in 1996, just four months before his 19th birthday. “Now I am looking at the situation where I may not be able to play again. It’s quite emotional for me.
“I have been very blessed to make the type of money I have made in my career. But it’s having to think about stopping something I have done since I was 8 years old.’’
O’Neal has two children, ages 12 and 5, and he mentioned several times how important it is to be physically able to participate in their lives well beyond his playing days. O’Neal has played with various ailments during his career. Now his knees are brittle and his left wrist is degenerative.
“Based on what the doctors said, I won’t even have the mobility in my wrist again,’’ he said. “I will have quite a bit of arthritis. It has picked up in my hand based on the bones moving around like marbles.
“I got a little bit quiet over the last couple of days, and you hear things about [toughness]. Some people are saying very uneducated things about me. It’s been a lot over the last month to deal with.
“In actuality, it’s a very severe situation when it comes to the operation on my wrist. Lord knows, if I could play with it, I would play with it. I just can’t play with it.’’
The gold standards for high school draft entries are Garnett and Bryant. They have earned more than $512 million in salary, not including endorsements. Both have managed to stay relatively healthy. Bryant has ignored several injuries throughout the past decade and walks around with slightly mangled fingers from sprains and ligament tears.
“They look OK,’’ Bryant said with a smile. “I’ll never be a hand model, though.’’
Both Bryant and Garnett are in the top 20 all-time in minutes played, and Bryant is third in the league in minutes this season.
“Late in your career, [injuries] happen,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “Just because you have plans doesn’t mean your body has the same plans. Our league is hard.
“You play 12 or 13 years, I don’t care if you started at 18 or 23, it’s still 12 or 13 years in the NBA. The body at that point is probably going to say, ‘I’m tired.’ You can only do so much.
“I do think guys in this generation do more. They don’t play as much basketball, but they do more work, all the lifting. They are waking up muscles we never had. I kid them about that all the time. They put more stress on their body than we did. They are tighter than we were. At some point, the body gives up.’’
Rivers shows nothing but amazement at Bryant and Garnett.
“Kobe is third in the league in minutes - that’s crazy,’’ he said. “It’s crazy what Kevin’s doing. Let’s be honest, he’s the guy every night that’s shown up for the most part, and who would have thought that?
“But those are two guys who have always taken care of their bodies. They eat right. They sleep right. They work out right.
“I don’t think Kevin or Kobe has ever been out of shape in their lives. A lot of guys, they use the summer to do nothing and then get back in shape. Kevin and Kobe are ahead of their time when it comes to flexibility and yoga and all this stuff.
“[Robert] Parish, [Wilt] Chamberlain, [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar, they all did it. Maybe they knew something.’’
NO DOUBTING THOMAS
A breakout in backcourt
Isaiah Thomas is making a name for himself as he attempts to establish himself as a starting point guard despite his 5-foot-8-inch frame and a reputation for being a score-first player.
Thomas left the University of Washington a year early and was chided by detractors who said a high-scoring diminutive guard would not succeed at the next level.
Now he is the first guard off the bench for the Kings, giving them a spark and burning the opposition with his ability to pile up points. Last week, he scored 9 of his 13 points against the Celtics in the third quarter, making baskets with an array of moves.
Thomas has been a mighty mite since his days at Curtis High School in Tacoma, Wash., where he scored 51 points in a state championship game. There were doubts as to whether he could flourish at the Division 1 college level, but he averaged 16.4 points in three years at Washington.
This season, Thomas is averaging 10.1 points in 46 games and had 24 against the Heat last month, including 20 in the third quarter.
“It kind of felt like high school again,’’ he said. “After the game, I was just like, ‘I did that on guys like LeBron [James], Dwyane Wade.’
“It was a little surreal. In the game, it feels normal, but after the game, when you are talking to your mom and your dad, they’re so happy you’re playing against guys like that and doing well.
“When I am on the floor, it feels normal, like I am in high school or college.’’
That stretch against the Heat hinted at Thomas’s potential as a cornerstone, something he envisioned when he entered the draft.
“I always got a lot of confidence in myself, so I felt like if I was given the opportunity, I could excel and succeed at this level,’’ he said. “Coach [Keith] Smart has given me a big opportunity and I’m taking full advantage of it, but for the people who didn’t believe in me, it just makes it easier for me to go out there and work even harder.’’
Thomas was the final pick in the 2011 draft and was unsure what to expect when he arrived in Sacramento. The Kings already had Tyreke Evans and had acquired highly publicized prospect Jimmer Fredette on draft night. Now Thomas has eclipsed Fredette, averaging more points and shooting at a higher percentage from the field and 3-point line.
“At the beginning of the year, some games I didn’t know if I was going to play,’’ he said. “I’m a little more comfortable knowing I can play through mistakes and hoop without thinking so much.
“At the beginning of the year [under previous coach Paul Westphal], every turnover I was looking to the bench and thinking, ‘Man, is he taking me out?’ Now I can really just play basketball without thinking too much.’’
Although Thomas is a rookie and the Celtics’ Avery Bradley is in his second year, Thomas is nearly two years older and was a mentor to Bradley during their AAU days in Tacoma. Thomas said Bradley has always been a strong defender.
“He’s like a little brother to me,’’ Thomas said. “We work out together in the summer, so I know Avery pretty well.
“Guys are surprised how good he can slide his feet and keep people in front of him, but he’s always had that. I always asked him, ‘How do you do that?’ It’s just a gift that he has that he can keep anybody in front of him.
“It’s crazy to watch Boston games and see he’s guarding guys like Chris Paul and turning them and making them turn the ball over. He’s getting better and better, and they’re showing a lot of confidence in him and letting him play a lot more than his rookie year.’’
Celtics earn Karl’s praise
Veteran coach George Karl - who was Ray Allen’s first coach in Milwaukee - was asked about the Hall of Fame potential of Boston’s Big Three.
“I think they’re all in,’’ he said. “I don’t think there’s any question. Ray Allen’s got to be one of the top three shooters of all time. [Paul] Pierce has been the foundation of that great traditional organization. [Kevin] Garnett helped them win that championship.’’
And he believes Rajon Rondo is one of the league’s top point guards.
“From an orchestration standpoint, now, a lot of point guards can be scorers and passers, but I still think there’s three or four guards who run the game, who operate the game,’’ he said. “And I think he’s in the top three or four of those guys.
‘‘Chris Paul, Steve Nash would be guys that come to mind. There are other guys who score a lot of points, but there aren’t too many true point guards.’’
And he had nothing but compliments for Doc Rivers.
“I think he’s done a great job,’’ Karl said. “They were on the brink of being a very mediocre team and he and Danny Ainge, they did something that not many teams do - trade for older players.
“And then to win a championship with it and be in the top five or six teams in the league has been first-class.
“He’s always been good at the end of games. He’s always been very good with acuteness of execution. He’s a very good execution coach.’’
Clipper ship hits the rocks
Clippers owner Donald Sterling decided to hire Vinny Del Negro as coach because his wife thought he fit better with the team’s image, and in the process, they passed up Dwane Casey. But after another disheartening loss, to the Hornets Thursday, Del Negro’s status is even more tenuous. The Clippers have languished since Chauncey Billups’s torn Achilles’ tendon cost him the season; the issue is rotations and defensive concepts. They added so many pieces that playing time appears to have become an issue, too, especially with Randy Foye, Mo Williams, and Eric Bledsoe. The Clippers hoped to eclipse the Lakers this season but are barely hanging on to a playoff spot.
While there was a high demand for J.J. Hickson among playoff contenders, he wanted to play for a lottery-bound team and was claimed off waivers by Portland. Hickson apparently wants to increase his free agent value this summer, and coming off the bench for the Celtics or another contender likely would not have boosted his marketability. Hickson was considered untouchable by the Cavaliers after being a first-round pick out of North Carolina State in 2008, but when Cleveland drafted talented Texas forward Tristan Thompson, he became expendable and was shipped to Sacramento. His stint with the Kings was a disaster, hence the waivers. And the Cavaliers haven’t exactly been thrilled with Omri Casspi, whom they acquired for Hickson. The issue with Hickson, according to scouts, is that he is splendid rolling to the basket on the pick-and-roll but ignores defense. The playing time with Portland could give him a chance to reshape his image.
Another first-round pick looking for another chance is Terrence Williams, who was banished from the Rockets and signed a 10-day contract with the Kings. Once upon a time, he was the 11th overall pick by the Nets (in 2009) but has played just 33 games since logging 78 as a rookie. Williams had trouble with coaches Avery Johnson in New Jersey and Rick Adelman in Houston. He will be a free agent this summer . . . The Celtics showed interest in swingman Boris Diaw, who was waived by the Bobcats because coach Paul Silas was fed up with his lackadaisical play. Diaw was considered a budding star a few years ago but has played the past few years about 20 pounds above his previous weight. The Bobcats will have plenty of cap space if they decide to amnesty DeSagana Diop, who has a player option for $7.3 million next season . . . A salute to Lacy J. Banks, the first African-American sportswriter at the Chicago Sun-Times, who died last week at 68. Banks was still going strong last summer, covering Dennis Rodman’s induction into the Hall of Fame in August. He covered the Michael Jordan Bulls of the 1980s and early 1990s and was one of the most respected sportswriters in the country.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.