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Will Galen
04-27-2004, 05:33 AM
http://www.indystar.com/articles/0/141628-9360-179.html

Pacers appear set for many seasons, By Mark Montieth

By Mark Montieth
mark.montieth@indystar.com
April 27, 2004


For the first time since 2000, when a drastically different team represented the franchise, the Indiana Pacers can look forward to the second round of the playoffs.

But Sunday afternoon, after they swept Boston out of the FleetCenter, Jermaine O'Neal took a hurried moment while heading toward the team bus to peek further ahead.

Much further.

"It's a scary thing," he said. "It's a scary thing."

Scary-good for the Pacers, who appear to have hit a sweet spot in their 37-year history. They already own the NBA's fourth-best record over the past 10 seasons, only one of which failed to produce a playoff appearance.

They won a franchise-record 61 games this season and are regarded as a legitimate contender for the league championship. And, they are poised to remain a contender for several more seasons based on the play and potential of their core group of young players.

Of the 15 players on the Pacers' payroll, 13 are younger than 30 years old. They're also secured. Jermaine O'Neal, 25, is signed for six seasons after this one. Ron Artest, 24, has five more seasons, although he can opt out of the last one. Austin Croshere, 29, has three more seasons, but can opt out of the final two.

Jonathan Bender, 23, has three more seasons. Al Harrington, 24, has two more seasons. Jeff Foster, 27, has five more seasons. Jamaal Tinsley, 26, has two more seasons. Fred Jones, 25, has three more seasons, the final two at the team's option. Scot Pollard, 29, has two more seasons.

Kenny Anderson and Jamison Brewer are this summer's only free agents, although Anthony Johnson could opt out.

They also have a highly regarded first-year coach in Rick Carlisle and an unproven but highly regarded rookie team president in Larry Bird.

Having seemingly covered the past, present and future of the franchise's basketball fortunes, CEO Donnie Walsh could be forgiven for a case of swollen pride. Walsh, however, admits only to feeling good about the professional manner with which the players handled this season and the first-round sweep.

He'll leave it to others to admire his personnel handiwork.

"It's one of the better circumstances in the league," said Boston president Danny Ainge, who faces a major building project. "Donnie's done a great job getting all that talent. There have been a lot of Jonathan Bender bashers, but he showed what he can do the last half of the season and in this series. Al Harrington is coming into his own. Artest and O'Neal are getting more mature all the time.

"Boy, I think it's going to be pretty simple to add pieces to this nucleus and be successful for years to come."

Contrast that outlook to the one just a year ago, after the Pacers lost a six-game first-round series to the Celtics. Walsh was being challenged to fire coach Isiah Thomas. O'Neal, Reggie Miller and Brad Miller were free agents. Artest's future was questioned because of his suspension-filled season.

"It's hard to hang on to your beliefs in those situations," Walsh said. "But I've always believed in the players we have here."

The Pacers, it turned out, were able to absorb the loss of Brad Miller, an All-Star center, make no major additions to the playing roster, adjust to a coaching change and still become a contending team.

They have All-Stars in O'Neal and Artest (who is also the Defensive Player of the Year), a strong and improving bench and chemistry on and off the court.

"They could be in the NBA Finals this year," said John Carroll, who was released as the Celtics coach on Monday. "They're a well-oiled machine that has a lot of answers."

They have time on their side, too. The team that reached the NBA Finals in 2000 was on its last collective legs. Three starters, Rik Smits, Mark Jackson and Dale Davis, were playing what would turn out to be their final season with the team. Smits, 33, retired. Jackson was 35, Miller 34, Davis 31. A key reserve, Sam Perkins, was 38.

The players on this year's playoff roster have an average age of 27.6. It's 26.7 if you take away the 38-year-old Miller, the only team member close to retirement. For the fourth consecutive season, they qualify as a young team. Only now they're also an experienced team.

"I wouldn't make them the favorite to win the NBA championship right now, but I see them as a team we would aspire to be like," Ainge said. "They're young, talented and deep -- and their depth is young. It's a nice place to be."

So many things can go wrong, of course. A major injury or other mishap can derail a career, and sometimes a franchise. Free agents will have to be re-signed, and the Pacers could face more Brad Miller moments if a player's market value exceeds the constraints of their budget. If Harrington and Bender continue to develop, they won't want to come off the bench forever.

Depth brings options, however, and Bird, who's now in charge of personnel, will have plenty of tools to work with. But he probably won't have to do much.

"They have pieces, so they can make moves if they want," Carroll said. "The future's extremely bright for their team."

Perhaps even brighter than their past.

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Best of all
The teams with the best NBA records over the past 10 seasons:
Team Record Pct.
Lakers 536-252 .680
Spurs 520-268 .660
Jazz 519-269 .659
Pacers 482-306 .612
Sonics 475-313 .603


Building blocks
Four key moves that have positioned the Indiana Pacers for a potentially bright future:
June 1998: Selected Al Harrington with the 25th pick in the NBA draft. The Pacers had no immediate needs at the time and could afford to wait on a high school kid to blossom.
June 1999: Traded Antonio Davis to Toronto for Jonathan Bender on draft day. Unpopular in some quarters, it didn't hurt the team short-term and could bring a windfall long-term. Davis, 35, is winding down his career in Chicago while the 23-year-old Bender embodies potential.
August 2000: Traded Dale Davis to Portland for Jermaine O'Neal. Davis was coming off his only All-Star season and O'Neal had averaged 3.0 points in his fourth season in Portland. Four years later, Davis, 35, is playing off the bench and O'Neal, 25, is a three-time All-Star.
February 2002: Traded Jalen Rose, Travis Best, Norm Richardson and a second-round draft pick to Chicago for Ron Artest, Ron Mercer, Brad Miller and Kevin Ollie. Artest is the only player of the group who hasn't switched teams again, but he's made the deal a major plus for Indiana.

ABADays
04-27-2004, 07:16 AM
As I stated in a thread a couple of days ago, not really any reason to draft the next couple of years. Trade them for future picks.

wintermute
04-27-2004, 09:09 AM
or draft projects - there will be a lot of those in this draft.

sixthman
04-27-2004, 09:18 AM
or draft projects - there will be a lot of those in this draft.

Yeah, another Al Harrington, maybe or even Jeff Foster. ;)

BillS
04-27-2004, 09:21 AM
Ya know, if it were up to me I'd go for centers and point guards. If you develop a good one in either position you are set because there are so few of them in this league.

In both cases, I'd avoid the HS draft and watch the lesser known college ranks for another Antonio Davis or Jeff Foster.

bulletproof
04-27-2004, 09:30 AM
2003 was the toughest and most stressful year Donnie said he's ever had in the league. On top of that, his granddaughter died suddenly. It's all taken it's toll. But to come off of that and respond with a 61-21 record is simply astounding.