Say what you want about Toronto Raptors centre Jermaine O'Neal, he's agreeable.
Come off the bench behind Andrea Bargnani? Hey, he's all for it.
"I have no ego about that," O'Neal said.
Get traded before the NBA's Feb. 19 deadline? That's fine, too.
"If I was to get traded, God bless 'em," O'Neal said after practice yesterday. "I have a really good agent in Arn Tellum and he keeps me aware of what teams are trying to acquire me. ... And [Raptors president]Bryan Colangelo? He's my man. We have a very friendly relationship and I respect his view."
It's fitting the Raptors will roll into Indianapolis tonight for the 41st game of the season, the halfway point of a campaign that has been decidedly half full.
O'Neal was acquired from the Indiana Pacers in the off-season for T.J. Ford and Rasho Nesterovic. Had things gone as planned, O'Neal would be the engine driving Toronto to new heights as he returned triumphant to the city where he starred for eight seasons.
Instead, the Raptors are eight games under .500, alone in 12th place and three games out of a playoff spot. O'Neal has been spotty, mixing some impressive stretches of play with bouts of rust while missing 12 games because of injury.
It hasn't worked, though optimism remains. "There are a lot of games to play," Raptors head coach Jay Triano said. "We've still got 50 cents on the dollar, so we need to cash that and see if we can get on a roll."
As the season reaches its fulcrum, the elephant in the half court is the role O'Neal will play from here on in.
In O'Neal's absence, Bargnani has exploded, easily playing the best basketball of his career, looking every inch the No. 1 overall pick he was in 2006.
In the nine games Bargnani has started at centre in place of O'Neal, he's averaged 22.3 points a game, 7.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, while shooting 55.7 per cent from the floor and a sizzling 57.8 per cent from three-point land.
O'Neal says he has no problem working his way back into the lineup slowly if he does play tonight. He said the decision will be made this morning, when the Raptors' training staff can evaluate how his right knee responded to practice yesterday.
But whether it's tonight or Sunday against the Phoenix Suns, O'Neal says he's fine backing up Bargnani for now.
"I'm going to come off the bench and I'm going to work my way back into it," said O'Neal, who explained that what was a relatively innocuous condition was made worse when his knee swelled considerably on the four-hour flight from San Francisco to Toronto in late December. "He's earned the right to stay in the starting lineup."
The real question becomes what happens when O'Neal is healthy, and what his future is in a Toronto uniform.
The emergence of Bargnani and the Raptors' shortcomings elsewhere in the lineup have made the possibility of dealing O'Neal sooner rather than later a growing priority, according to sources.
It would be a move welcomed in the Bargnani camp.
"I hope they do," one source said in reference to the possibility the Raptors could trade O'Neal to make room for the big Italian.
Most NBA clubs are looking for salary-cap relief in the summer of 2010 to be able to bid on a rich crop of free agents. O'Neal, with another season and $22.5-million (U.S.) remaining on his contract, presents a hybrid solution: He can help a team now without compromising long-term financial flexibility.
There are some interesting trade possibilities. NBA insiders list the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat as teams with playoff aspirations that could use O'Neal's interior presence. He was averaging 15.3 points a game and 5.9 rebounds on 52.2 per cent shooting in just 29 minutes of court time in December before getting hurt.
Insiders have speculated the Bulls may be able to cobble together a collection of young players. The Heat are said to be interested in trading Shawn Marion. The versatile small forward was a favourite of Colangelo's when they were together in Phoenix. Marion is in the final season of a deal paying him $17.9-million (U.S.) this year and has struggled to find his offence alongside Dwyane Wade.
Notes According to the Elias Sports Bureau, when Andrea Bargnani was 2-for-4 on three-pointers as part of his game-best total of 31 points in the Toronto Raptors' loss to the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, it was Bargnani's ninth consecutive game with two or more three-point field goals, tying the longest streak in NBA history for a starting centre. Centre Mehmet Okur had at least two three-pointers in each of nine consecutive games for the Utah Jazz last season. ... Still with Elias, no more than three points have separated the Indiana Pacers and their opponents at the end of regulation time in 10 of Indiana's past 14 games. Six other teams in NBA history played 10 such heart-pounders over a 14-game span (most recently the 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs), but no team has ever played more. ... Raptors point guard Jose Calderon (hamstring) is not expected to play tonight.
Next game Tonight at Indiana Pacers, 7 EST
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