Thursday June 26th, 2008

How desperate were the Indiana Pacers to unload Jermaine O'Neal? They were willing to accept a mid-level draft pick, an expiring contract and a point guard with a history of neck injuries.

The Pacers have agreed in principle to send O'Neal to Toronto in exchange for guard T.J. Ford, center Rasho Nesterovic and the 17th pick in the draft. Because of salary-cap rules, the deal cannot be completed until July 9. The trade is contingent on O'Neal, who missed 40 games last season due to a knee injury, and Ford, who has battled a chronic neck injury since college, passing physicals.

The Pacers have been actively shopping O'Neal since the start of the regular season. According to NBA front-office sources, Indiana offered O'Neal to virtually every team at the February trading deadline. The response was lukewarm, with teams being scared off by the two years and $44 million remaining on O'Neal's contract.

O'Neal may just be the first domino to fall in Indiana. Sources say Indiana was willing to trade everyone but small forward Danny Granger at the deadline. "They made it clear they were willing to blow it up," a Western Conference executive said. Contrary to reports, front-office sources say the Pacers have been shopping forward Mike Dunleavy -- who is owed $29.3 million over the next three seasons -- while showing some reluctance to part with center Jeff Foster, who is considered a favorite of coach Jim O'Brien.

With O'Neal out of the picture, the Pacers are now in full rebuilding mode. With Ford and the remaining three years and $25 million of his contract now on board, incumbent point guard Jamaal Tinsley is expected to be moved or have the remaining three years and $21.4 million on his contract bought out. Pacers president Larry Bird also told local reporters this week that second-year forward Shawne Williams is "on thin ice."

Ford, however, is a risk. An ultra-quick, streaky-shooting point guard, Ford has the talent to be a 30-to-35-minute starter. But Ford missed 13 games with a neck injury last season, the same injury that caused him to miss all of the 2004-2005 season. There is literally the possibility his career could end at any moment.

For Toronto, acquiring O'Neal means that All-Star power forward Chris Bosh will finally have some help in the frontcourt. Despite an injury-plagued 2007-08 season, it is widely believed that O'Neal's knee problems are not an issue anymore and that had he been playing for a contender, he might have been able to play late last season. While not a pure center, O'Neal averaged 19.6 points and 9.4 rebounds in 2006-07 and, when healthy, is still a force in the pivot.

The move also frees the Raptors to re-sign Jose Calderon, a restricted free agent who has made it clear that he was not interested in returning to Toronto as a backup. Calderon shared the point-guard duties without complaint when Ford returned from injury last season, but his All-Star-caliber play (13.0 points, 9.1 assists in 56 games as a starter) proves that he is more than ready to take over the job full time.

Toronto will be hurt by the loss of forward Jorge Garbajosa, a key player in its 2006-07 playoff run before playing in only seven games last season with a leg injury and eventually being bought out of his contract. But with Calderon back and a healthy O'Neal, the Raptors -- the sixth seed in the 2008 playoffs -- could be strong enough to jockey with Cleveland, Orlando, Washington and Detroit for the 2-5 spots behind Boston next season.

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