by Marcel Mutoni

Jermaine O’Neal deserves better than this.

For a guy who’s been named to the All-Star Team six times, averaged a double-double (including two straight 20 and 10 campaigns) for three consecutive seasons, was named to the Olympic squad in 2004 (only to bow out due to *surprise, surprise* injury), garnered serious MVP consideration once upon a time, and who famously (and hilariously) impaled the face of an obnoxiously drunk Pistons fan, Jermaine O’Neal deserves better than to be ranked as the 42nd best player in the League.

Due to injures, his SLAMonline Top 50 ranking tumbled by 19 spots since we last partook in this exercise.

Not to say he should be ranked higher – if anything, he’s probably ranked too high all things considered. I’m talking about what he once was, which of course, hardly anyone still cares about.

The only thing on people’s minds are the missed games and the nightmarish way in which his career in Indiana came to an end. The engaging interviews, the social awareness, the man’s irrepressible joie de vivre are all figments of the past.

To give you an idea as to just how bad this man once was, a few years ago, no one would’ve blinked if you informed them that O’Neal is owed a gargantuan $44 million over the next two seasons. That is a lot of scratch for anyone; it’s an insane amount of money for a player who, by his own admission, has competed against the best on Earth with just a single fully-functioning leg for the past couple of years.

(Forget the money for a moment. Seriously, would any sober League exec take O’Neal right now over any of the guys currently ranked below him – with the possible exception of Marcus Camby?)

Jermaine O’neal will turn 30 years old next month; Bryan Colangelo is gambling heavily that – thanks, I suppose, to poutine and cheap Canadian cigarettes – J.O. will suddenly find the fountain of health in a Raptors uniform.

The popular GM is also banking on the possibility that going to Toronto is the best thing that could’ve happened to Jermaine O’Neal’s career at this point. Otherwise, he and Colangelo will be spending a lot of time together, grimly shopping for designer suits.

Jermaine and his gimpy knees will no longer be asked to be the go-to-guy (and his reaction to this inevitable fate will certainly be something worthy of close observation); Toronto is nowhere near the basketball pressure-cooker that Hoosier Country is; the Raptors are a good Eastern Conference team that will make the Playoffs and, if the stars correctly align, could even win a series next May.

All J.O. has to do is stay relatively healthy (read: participate in somewhere between 65-75 games), grab a few boards, block the occasional shot, hit a couple of turnarounds per night, find the shooters on the perimeter when the defense collapses on him, and play nice with the media. He manages to do all of that, and he’ll be golden.

To see such a gifted player reduced to a shell of his former self might make the rest of us feel depressed, but if he can put together a relatively healthy (and productive) 2008-’09 campaign, Colangelo, his trusted bean counters, and the passionate fans of Toronto won’t need to sweat that minor detail.

Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.