Here's a question for all you NBA trivia buffs out there — who was the highest-paid player in the NBA last season?
The answer? Not LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant. Nope — all wrong.
It was Jermaine O'Neal.
OK, that might actually be a slight exaggeration. The exact numbers are a bit fuzzy, but O'Neal made around $23 million last year with the Miami Heat, which is in the same ballpark with Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady. Depending on who you ask, O'Neal's paychecks last season totaled a touch over the $23 million mark, perhaps around $23.016 million. In any event, he's right there, possibly No. 1.
That's sort of crazy if you think about it. O'Neal battled injuries all season (bruised hip, strained groin, hip flexor, stiff back, sprained ankle, hyperextended knee), averaged less than 30 minutes a night when he did play, never became a consistent scoring threat, and got eaten alive in the first round of the East playoffs by Kendrick Perkins and the Celtics. And yet he still made a yearly salary that's just about double the GDP of Tuvalu.
That was then, this is now. O'Neal, like Bryant and McGrady, signed a monster contract extension back in the middle of last decade, when business was booming in the NBA and the salary cap was through the roof. Max guys were getting giant max deals. It's not so easy anymore, though.
A long time has passed since O'Neal signed his last contract, a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Indiana Pacers. A lot has changed — not just in the economy of the NBA, but in O'Neal's career.
O'Neal was a big man on campus in Indianapolis. He was a large part of a Pacers team that made six straight playoff appearances during his time there, including the 2003-04 season when they won 61 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. For a brief time, O'Neal was one of the game's top scorers, rebounders and shot blockers.
But then came his fall from grace. In 2007 and '08, O'Neal was part of a Pacers team that was on the decline. By '09, he'd been sent to Toronto, part of a draft-day trade that helped Larry Bird rebuild things in Indiana.
Then this spring, O'Neal played alongside D-Wade, part of one of the worst supporting casts an NBA superstar has ever taken to the playoffs. Sad but true.
O'Neal's not a $23 million man anymore. He's now a Celtic, and he's agreed to come to Boston by signing for the mid-level exception, just under $6 million a season. And that's a generous offer for a glorified backup center — O'Neal will likely spend just two months in the Celtics' starting five before he's booted out by Perkins, the established starting big man in Boston.
He's not a star anymore. But he's an important role player that could definitely help the Celtics in their quest for another title — he's going to fill in for the injured Perk, defend the rim, grab rebounds, and maybe even give the Celtics a low-post presence offensively.
The old O'Neal wanted to steal the show himself. The new guy will come in, sub into the lineup for a couple of months, and then fade into the woodwork. The six-time NBA All-Star is a very rich man, but he's now just a small piece of the Celtics' puzzle. Next season, they'll try to put the pieces together and build another title.