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Most Valuable Pacer

O'Neal has emerged as Indiana's -- and Eastern Conference's -- top player

March 21, 2004|Jon Krawczynski | Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Four years ago, Indiana Pacers General Manager Donnie Walsh upset fans by trading Dale Davis to Portland for some bench warmer who never averaged more than 4.5 points and 3.4 rebounds.

Nobody's complaining now that Jermaine O'Neal has blossomed into perhaps the lone legitimate MVP candidate in the Eastern Conference.

"I don't know if it was so much negativity, it was more doubt because Jermaine had no statistics and they probably thought, 'What are they doing?" ' Walsh recalled. "But from the first day the guy played a game, that was over because you could see what kind of player he could be."

But even Walsh admits he didn't anticipate O'Neal's meteoric rise.

O'Neal is averaging 20.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks a game, and had 40 double-doubles -- third most in the NBA and tops in the East. And, he is the biggest reason the Pacers have the best record in the NBA (50-17).

"He's doing it not only by statistical productivity, but he's raised the play of the guys around him," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "That's the test of a true MVP candidate, whether you can make your teammates better."

He's come a long way from the lanky kid who, at the time he made his debut with the Trail Blazers on Dec. 5, 1996, was the youngest player to ever play in an NBA game.

O'Neal was taken by Portland with the 17th pick in the 1996 draft straight out of South Carolina's Eau Claire High School.

Stuck behind Rasheed Wallace and Brian Grant in the Trail Blazers' rotation, he averaged just 3.9 points and 3.1 rebounds in four seasons.

Walsh sent Davis, who led Indiana in rebounds seven straight years and had just made his first All-Star game, to Portland for O'Neal in August 2000.

While many doubted whether he would emerge after languishing on the bench in Portland, O'Neal never lost faith.

"I've always been confident in my abilities," O'Neal said. "I never had any doubts I would make it."

At the time, the trade was viewed as heavily lopsided in Portland's favor, but it didn't take long for the Pacers to start reaping the benefits. O'Neal was named most improved player in 2001-02 after averaging 19 points and 10.5 rebounds.

He's not just beating up on the mediocre teams in the Eastern Conference. Indiana's win over the Blazers on Wednesday was its seventh in a row against the West.

"Right now he's a legitimate MVP contender," Walsh said. "To say that at 25 is pretty amazing."

Minnesota's Kevin Garnett is the clear front-runner in the MVP race, and many expect the award will continue to go to Western Conference players until the East breaks the West's run of five straight league titles.

The way the Pacers are playing this season, that may come sooner rather than later, which no doubt increases O'Neal's chances.

Not that it matters to him.

"It doesn't even factor," O'Neal said. "If I can get it by my team having the best record in the NBA, then great. If not, so what?

"My ultimate goal is to finish the season strong and get to the playoffs and definitely get out of the first round, then get to the NBA Finals."

The Pacers' balance and depth make those goals attainable. And O'Neal's teammates say he deserves some of the credit for that.

Ron Artest made his first All-Star game this year and Jeff Foster is averaging a career-high 7.1 rebounds.

"He's playing at such a high level that it forces everyone around him to play at a high level," Foster said about O'Neal. "He just demands so much attention, they tend to forget about me and the other guys."

O'Neal is only too happy to help his teammates improve. The bottom line, he says, is the Pacers are winning.

"What carries the really good players is players who put the team first," he said. "That's what matters, because you can't win an MVP with a losing record."

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