11-26-2004, 01:22 AM
What do the Pacers do now?
By Chad Ford
What happens when three weeks into the season, one of the top contenders for the NBA crown loses its three top scorers for the next few months?
No good. No Upside. Just lots and lots of bad.
The Very, Very Bad
INDIANA PACERS: Without Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson, it's tough to believe the Pacers have any real shot at the playoffs, let alone competing for an NBA title.
O'Neal won't return until Jan. 15. Jackson won't return until Jan. 26. With Jonathan Bender out six weeks with a knee injury and other Pacers such as Jeff Foster, Reggie Miller and Scot Pollard also nursing injuries, can the Pacers rebound?
The team had been worried for months that Artest was going to snap and be lost for the season. Now that Indiana's worst fears have been realized, how will the Pacers respond?
Despite the gloomy outlook, they do have several things going for them. In fact, they still have a route to the playoffs. Insider breaks it down.
# The appeal: Union chief Billy Hunter already has said the players' association will appeal on behalf of Artest, O'Neal and Jackson given the severity of the penalties.
What will happen next? Things don't look good for Artest & Co. According to Article XXXI, Section 8 (a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the players' association can't ask for an independent arbitrator in this particular instance, because the dispute involves "conduct on the playing court."
Instead, players (or the union) must file an internal appeal, petitioning the commissioner to reconsider – something several of the players, including Artest and O'Neal, plan on pursuing – but the final say rests solely with Stern.
The union can file a grievance arguing the players' actions took place off the court, because Artest went into the crowd. Off-the-court incidents can be appealed to an independent arbitrator (like the Latrell Sprewell-P.J. Carlesimo choking incident). However, a league source familiar with the language of the rule claims it's unlikely an appeal on those grounds will prevail, given precedent of the rule's application.
If somehow Stern decides to reduce the suspensions (or if the union can convince an arbitrator the events took place off the court), Artest theoretically could be back before the end of the season, and both O'Neal and Jackson could be in uniform before their current mid-January return dates.
However, right now the chances of that seem slim.
# The schedule: The good news for the Pacers is their schedule in December is relatively light. They have eight road games during the stretch, and six are against the Clippers, Warriors, Hawks, Bulls, Bobcats and Nets – arguably the worst six teams in the NBA.
Their home schedule is tougher but still includes winnable games against the Bobcats, Bucks, Raptors, Sixers and Hornets.
However, in January, things get brutal. A four-game road trip against the Spurs, Mavericks, Suns and Grizzlies, followed by a home game against the Suns, could be a killer.
But even if the Pacers go 7-23 in their stretch without O'Neal and Jackson (a worst-case scenario, in my mind), you still can't write them out of the playoffs at 14-26 overall.
That record isn't great, but given how weak the East is at the moment, the ground they would need to gain over the second half of the season isn't insurmountable. If they could move into a sixth seed, they actually would avoid a potential problem that has worried them since the league realigned – facing the Pistons in the second round of the playoffs.
# Several cap exceptions: The league will allow the Pacers to sign a few free agents to replace the three suspended players. Luckily for the Pacers, they didn't spend all of their exception money this summer. They have $2.7 million of their $4.9 million mid-level exception left and also own their full $1.6 million exception.
There are several free agents still unsigned, among them Marcus Haislip, Keon Clark, Michael Curry, Gary Trent and Troy Bell.
Will the Pacers spend the cash? The problem they face is they already have one of the highest payrolls in the league and an owner who doesn't want it to grow. The team gets no cap relief for having players suspended. Anyone they add is an additional cost.
The Pacers also are free to make a trade, including possibly moving Artest while he's under suspension. While his trade value is at an all-time low, a team like the Knicks, who previously have shown enormous interest in him, might be willing to make a deal now, hoping Artest wins his appeal or, in a worst-case scenario, will be ready to play next season.
# The replacements: The Pacers do have one of the deeper benches in the league, and they'll need it now more than ever. Several of their top young players haven't had a lot of opportunities to play. Now that they're thrust into the spotlight, can they pick up some of the slack?
Fred Jones has to step up with the Pacers' three top scorers out of the lineup.
Start with new starting 2-guard Fred Jones, who already had taken over a big role this year with Miller out with a broken hand. His 31 points against the Magic on Saturday gave you a taste of what he's capable of doing without the other go-to guys in the lineup. Jones is a strong, athletic 2-guard who can defend and hit 3s. Expect him to put up big numbers during the stretch.
Austin Croshere will step in and replace O'Neal. Croshere looked like the next great thing four years ago, when he helped the Pacers push the Lakers in the Finals. Since then, he's been kind of lost in the shuffle. This year he's been playing big minutes for the injury-depleted Pacers and playing well. He's averaged 13 ppg and 7.8 ppg on 48 percent shooting the past five games. He's also one of the team's best 3-point shooters. He won't provide the toughness, rebounding or shot blocking O'Neal does, but he isn't bad.
Second-year forward James Jones likely will get the call at small forward until Bender comes back from injury. Jones has played sparingly but had an impressive 12-point, 12-rebound performance in his first game against the Magic.
Also, don't forget about rookie David Harrison at center. Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh raved about him all summer, and with both Foster and Pollard nursing injuries, he's been more than solid in the middle. He had 19 points and eight rebounds against the Magic. He's still raw, but this gives the Pacers a wonderful opportunity to throw him out there and have him learn on the job.
# The unity factor: While it's tough to see a silver lining in this cloud, the Pacers may end up with two positives:
One, a team that seemed quite fractured a week ago appears to have bonded over the whole incident. Sources in Indiana claim Artest's teammates haven't blamed him for what happened to the team. The fact many of them rushed into the stands in his defense is a great sign of team unity.
Two, if players like Jones, Croshere and Harrison can carry the team over some of the rough spots, they'll be much better equipped to help once a well-rested O'Neal and Jackson return in mid-January.
David Stern may have landed a crippling blow to the franchise on Sunday. But it isn't over yet.
The Pacers may no longer be serious contenders for the Eastern Conference crown, but come mid-January, they'll still have enough firepower to make teams sweat in the East.
And if by some miracle Artest does get reinstated this season, the Pistons will be the ones sweating in May.
# Detroit Pistons: There's probably more than one Pistons fan out there who thinks his team belongs in the "good" category today. Ben Wallace's antics Friday night effectively eliminated Detroit's closest competition for the season.
Had that been accomplished on the court, we'd be impressed. But the fact remains it was Wallace who started this by over-reacting to an Artest foul. It was Wallace who egged Artest and the crowd on, throwing a towel at Artest before fans threw anything.
And it was a few Detroit fans who destroyed all the goodwill the team and the city had earned at the end of last season.
"You know, a few months ago, people were talking about our crowds as the envy of the league," said Joe Dumars, Pistons president of basketball operations. "It just goes to show you how one foolish moment can change things."
The Pistons may have played the right way last season. But everyone in Detroit played the wrong way on Friday.
The Pistons will recover quicker than the Pacers. But they're still without Wallace for the next six games. Those include road games against the red-hot Cavaliers and the Rockets, as well as a tough home game against their primary rivals in the East now – the Miami Heat.
The Pistons weren't just embarrassed by the actions off the court Friday. The banged up Pacers beat a healthy Pistons squad convincingly on the court. So far Detroit is off to an unimpressive 5-4 start – with squeaker overtime wins against the Clippers and Bobcats – and is giving up more than 97 ppg.
Everything is not right in Motown.
Hopefully Friday night's ugliness will help remind the Pistons' players and fans what made them special last year and how quickly things can turn when you lose focus of it.
# The NBA: David Stern came out swinging Sunday. The Pistons and Pacers had put a black eye on his beloved league, and his punches landed where it hurts, proving once and for all the commish can hit back harder than the rest of them.
Stern had to do something that made a statement to the fans, players and teams about the seriousness of the events that went down on Friday.
To that end, he succeeded. Suspending Artest for the season sends the appropriate message – the league won't to stand for that type of behavior. The huge punishments for O'Neal and Jackson also were unprecedented, destroying the myth that Stern was out just to purge the psychos.
Stern got everyone's attention, and as the SportsNation poll indicates, his decision was a popular one.
Placating the angry mob that wanted a pound of flesh may have been Stern's primary job. However, as commissioner, Stern also had a duty to be fair not only to the players, but to two of the best franchises in the league. It's also clear from the punishments that he may have over reached – especially with Artest.
There's no question Artest has a history of bizarre, even violent behavior on and off the court. The fears mostly centered on the irrational Artest – the guy who does insane things for no apparent reason. Who could've known it would be the semi-rational Artest who evoked Stern's greatest wrath this weekend?
I'm not defending Artest, but for almost the entire episode on Friday, Artest was a model of restraint – for Artest anyway. After being shoved in the neck and face by Ben Wallace, he resisted the urge to retaliate. The old, out-of-control Artest I've seen in the past would've lost it right there and went toe-to-toe with Wallace. Instead, he retreated to the scorer's table, laid down and waited for the refs to work things out. When Wallace later threw a towel his direction, clearly trying to provoke Artest, he didn't flinch.
It wasn't until a cup landed on his chest that Artest lost it. By now you've seen the video a hundred times. Artest bolted off the scorer's table and headed into the stands. Pacers sources claim Artest saw the fan throw the cup. Pistons sources say the tape clearly shows Artest actually got the wrong guy.
Artest didn't punch the fan or pummel him into a bloody pulp, as more creative columnists have suggested. He grabbed Ryan, manhandled him and asked him if he did it. The fan, in his own words, corroborates this.
"He asked me, 'Did you do it?' " the fan, Mike Ryan of Clarkston, Mich., told the Associated Press. "I said, 'No, man. No!' "
And it appears that after a few seconds, Artest let go and moved on to confront a number of other fans that were now taking their own shots at him. That doesn't sound like a guy totally out-of-control.
The next time the video gives us a good look at Artest, he's back on the court, trying to make his way to the locker room. Another fan moves onto the court and makes a threatening move toward Artest. Ron throws a haymaker at the guy before backing off. Again, Artest didn't beat him to a pulp. His teammates did that for him.
In fact, you can argue what O'Neal and Jackson did was worse. Though each claims they were coming to the defense of their teammate, both were clearly out of control. Jackson was swinging wildly at everyone. O'Neal cold-cocked a guy in the jaw who already was getting off his knees and looking the other way. I don't know how you call what they did "defense."
The argument that the fan was on the court and thus had it coming won't hold up so well in court. Only Artest really had the right to defend himself against that person.
However, you also could argue that O'Neal did less than Artest. He didn't leave the court. The only fan he hit was a guy who was on the court, messing with a teammate. Anthony Johnson hit the same fan in the face before O'Neal did. Johnson got five games. O'Neal got 25.
Still, Artest paid the ultimate price, primarily because he's Ron Artest. Stern admitted on Sunday that Artest's history played a part in the decision to suspend him for the season.
Artest has proven too many times his judgment is poor. In this case, his decision to run into the stands, no matter how much he was provoked, incited a riot. It was a stupid, stupid decision. Nothing good can ever come from a player running into the stands.
But suspended for the season? I'm all for tough love. But the time doesn't fit the crime – this time.
Look in the mirror this morning and ask yourself if there isn't a little bit of Ron Artest in all of us? On many nights, the crowds behind the visiting team's bench resemble the studio audience at the Jerry Springer show. And no, I don't think that's a good thing.
Lines are crossed too often, with fans going far beyond taunts. They can be vile and uncivilized. I've heard racist epithets flung with a venom that would make the KKK proud. Disparaging and demeaning remarks about family members or a player's history or personal problems all are fair game for fans these days.
Lines are being crossed by the media, too, with sports talk radio taking on a very Springer-like tone. When insults are dubbed "killing a guy," we've gone too far, too.
The players are as sick of us as we are of them. Just because they make millions doesn't mean they should be subject to flying objects – whether chairs, bottles or nasty words.
Stern did what he had to do. He did it against the only constituency over which he had any control.
But if you're waiting for the players or the NBA to make this all better, your finger is pointed in the wrong direction.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.
11-26-2004, 01:24 AM
Remaining Pacers show exceptional teamwork
By Brian James
INDIANAPOLIS – The injury-and-suspension-depleted Pacers proved again mind over matter and motivation are key ingredients in winning in the NBA.
On Tuesday in a charged Conseco Fieldhouse, they defeated the Celtics 106-96. With only eight players eligible to play and in uniform in wake of the brawl with the Pistons on Nov. 19, the Pacers were able to "circle the wagons" and play over their heads. They were helped by an energized crowd – Pacers' fans are some of the most loyal and knowledgeable in the entire league – that transferred an "us against the league" mentality to the players.
Another team also has excelled despite being short-handed this season: On opening night, the Wizards defeated the Grizzlies despite having only eight players in uniform.
For a player in this situation, being short-handed has a silver lining. If you make a mistake, chances are you're not going to have to look over at the bench to see who is getting ready to replace you.
Coach Rick Carlisle rotated just seven players in his main rotation, even though an eighth player, center John Edwards, played two minutes. Carlisle was tremendous in terms of game management and play calling.
Rookie swingman James Jones, off guard Fred Jones, and point guard Jamaal Tinsley played more than 40 minutes each.
The short-handed Pacers proved to be more than the Celtics could handle.
The key to the short-handed Pacers' success was precise offensive execution in the half court. The Pacers used every kind of screen and roll – in different sets – imaginable. This enabled them to get Tinsley into the lane to distribute on penetration, kicking out to shooters such as James and Fred Jones, or finishing shots in the lane.
That helped the Pacers erase a one-time 11-point Celtics' lead and hold off runs in the second half.
Austin Croshere had great looks on pick-and-pop action while Scot Pollard and rookie center David Harrison made shots after rolling hard into the lane.
Being very aggressive throughout the course of the game helped Indiana secure a distinct free throw advantage, making 31 of 34 free throw attempts (91 percent). The Celtics had 24 attempts, making 18 (75 percent).
The Pacers won the battle of the paint with this type of play. A 12-rebound advantage gave them extra possessions or limited the Celtics to one shot most of the evening.
Croshere, Tinsley, and Fred Jones need to play like All-Stars until injured and suspended players return. But if the Pacers continue to play as hard as they did last night, they will win their share of games.
Defensively, the Pacers kept the Celtics out of the lane and forced them to hit jump shots. Post players were being fronted at all times. They also showed out on screens and did a good job of keeping Gary Payton out of scoring areas.
The Celtics appeared to be playing uphill most of the night, and it wears on you always having to come from behind.
Not knowing how to play defense on the younger players and possibly taking them for granted had some effect as well. The Celtics allowed the Pacers' James Jones to make 4 of 6 three-point attempts. They did not run him off the three-point line to attempt two-pointers instead.
On the defensive end, when Celtics coach Doc Rivers went with his smaller lineup in the second half, Carlisle countered with James Jones as a four.
With the season-long suspension of Ron Artest and the multiple-game penalties against Jermaine O'Neal, Stephen Jackson and Anthony Johnson, the remaining eligible Pacers will have to continue to play at a high level.
Croshere, Tinsley, and Fred Jones need to play like All-Stars until injured and suspended players return. But if the Pacers continue to play as hard as they did last night, they will win their share of games regardless of who the opponents are.
Brian James, a former assistant coach with the Pistons, Raptors and Wizards, is a regular contributor to Insider.
11-26-2004, 10:01 AM
Remaining Pacers show exceptional teamwork
Rookie swingman James Jones, [/i]
Just lost some respect for this clown
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