The Portland Trail Blazers have joined the race to try to convince former All-Star center Jermaine O'Neal to play one more NBA season at age 36, according to league sources.
Sources told ESPN.com that the Blazers, who drafted O'Neal out of high school in 1996 and employed him for his first four NBA seasons before a career-changing trade to Indiana, have made overtures to O'Neal about returning to the Pacific Northwest to bolster their hobbled front line in the wake of recent injuries suffered by Robin Lopez (hand) and Joel Freeland (shoulder).
The Dallas Mavericks are widely regarded as the front-runners for O'Neal's services should he decide to play, given that O'Neal has made the Dallas area his offseason home base in recent years. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers also are known suitors for O'Neal, who began this season focused on spending time with family and off-court business interests after a successful 2013-14 campaign with Golden State.
Sources say O'Neal has made no firm decision about resuming his career, but he did post a picture to his Instragram account Monday from Germany, where he is getting the same treatment on his knees that he has credited with extending his career through successful stints with the Phoenix Suns and Golden State.
"Today was a great first day of treatments here in Germany!" O'Neal wrote. "If you know me then you know what this means!"
ESPN.com reported last month that the Mavericks' acquisition of Rajon Rondo had given them another edge in the race to lure O'Neal back to the league, with one source describing the six-time All-Star big man as "highly intrigued" by the idea of joining Rondo as an in-season addition to the Dallas roster under coach Rick Carlisle, alongside whom O'Neal had the most statistically productive years of his career.
O'Neal's deep ties to the Portland area, though, establish the Blazers as an interesting new factor in the hunt, with O'Neal expected to spend the next two weeks in an intense fitness program to make sure he would be fully ready for what would be his 19th NBA season.
But O'Neal has maintained for months that the ultimate decision power when it comes to a comeback rests with his wife and their two children. O'Neal coaches 8-year-old Jermaine Jr.'s basketball team, while his 15-year-old daughter, Asjia, has rebounded from heart surgery to emerge as a highly rated high school volleyball player.
Via Twitter, O'Neal said recently: "For 18 long years sports has dominated my [family's] life to a point that they have had to sacrifice things that [were] important to them. So you can believe now whatever decision I make will be a pure family decision that my family will have a huge part [in] making with me.
"Do I still love the game of basketball? Yes without a doubt! Can I physically still play? Probably better than 60% of the bigs in the league today! That's not a knock on anyone but more about how I feel. ... I've been blessed to have the opportunity to play for some great coaches, organizations and cities and I will always have love for them! But I love my family more than I love life itself and they will have the final say on my playing career or the closing of my career!"
In that Dec. 23 posting, O'Neal added: "[If] the decision is to play I promise you that when I hit the court I will be ready physically and mentally to help a team!"
Shortly thereafter, Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson told ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM that the Mavs "feel pretty good that we'll be able to come to terms" with either O'Neal or then-free agent Josh Smith. The Houston Rockets subsequently signed Smith.
Given the premium on proven rim protectors in today's game, O'Neal was always sure to be in high demand if he chose to keep playing, if not stirring up quite the frenzy Ray Allen would spark among various contenders, should the free-agent sharpshooter decide in coming weeks that he's up for one more playoff run.