BIGGEST OBSTACLES INTERNAL
By Conrad Brunner | Nov. 1, 2005 <HR>The competition promises to be the fiercest in years.
Detroit has won the Eastern Conference title two years in a row. Miami has Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade and now, seemingly, a cast of thousands. Cleveland has added more pieces to complement its foundation of LeBron James. New Jersey has stars at three positions. Philadelphia has two franchise players. New York has Larry Brown.
While the Pacers have full respect for their competitors in the East, they also know none represent their most important challenge: overcoming themselves.
"Everybody has to set aside agendas," said Jermaine O'Neal. "We can't worry about scoring 20 every single night. We can't worry about All-Star Games. We can't worry about personal accomplishments. That's not what this is about. This is about this team reaching the highest goal and that's the championship.
"If we put those things aside, and I feel like we're right on course right now, we'll be a tough team. The only way we don't win this year is if, as a team, we self-destruct, or if we don't want it as much as we say we do."
The Pacers enter the 2005-06 season with arguably their most talented team ever. O'Neal and Ron Artest comprise the most complete forward tandem in the league. Stephen Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley both are capable of joining those two at the All-Star level. There is no weak link on the bench, no position that isn't manned by at least two players capable of starting. The coaching staff is both young and experienced, with Rick Carlisle among the absolute elite.
"Personally, I don't think the Pacers have ever had a team like this, talent-wise," said O'Neal. "One thing we have this year with the talent is the mental toughness that's going to take us over the top. The past couple of years we had more talent than anybody else but we didn't have the experience and the toughness, mentally. This year it's a much different story."
Much of that toughness came in the aftermath of last season's series of unfortunate events, when the Pacers dealt with unprecedented adversity in the forms of suspensions and injuries. Having weathered that storm, the players believe they're ready for anything that may come their way.
"That's why I feel so positive," O'Neal said. "It couldn't get any worse than it did last year. That's not just the brawl, it's everything: sicknesses, injuries, whatever, we had it last year. Things happen for a reason and it has built this team up. We depend on each other and we have full confidence in one another. That's what makes a team good.
"If you look at San Antonio and Detroit, they haven't had the most talented teams but they've had the toughest teams, mentally and physically and they won championships. We have the talent and depth and really make things happen."
So do a number of teams in an Eastern Conference that has regained its competitive balance. Beyond the big three of the Pacers, Pistons and Heat, the battle for playoff positioning should be its fiercest in years. Of the 15 teams, only two (Charlotte and Atlanta) don't harbor serious postseason aspirations.
<TABLE width=65 align=right><TBODY><TR><TD>http://www.nba.com/media/playerfile/rick_carlisle.jpg
"If you look at the East, just about every team on paper has improved," said Carlisle. "There are some teams out there nobody is talking about which I know are going to be much better. I know Orlando is going to be a much better and more consistent team this year because defensive they're going to be better. Boston is young but very deep and very talented. Detroit is going to be great. Miami is going to be great. With (Jason) Kidd, (Vince) Carter and (Richard) Jefferson, (the Nets) have three top-three players at all three of those positions. You can't say that about many teams in the East or West. They're going to be really good.
"Washington is going to be a playoff team. Philly I think is going to be back there. New York has improved; they have Eddy Curry. Milwaukee's got (No. 1 pick Andrew) Bogut. And Cleveland is going to be much-improved not only because of the moves that they've made to get guys like (Larry) Hughes and Donyell Marshall, they re-signed (Zydrunas) Ilgaukskas, and Damon Jones is a really solid acquisition and Mike Brown is going to make them a better team, defensively."
Which brings us back to the Pacers, who have more talent and depth than any of the aforementioned teams. "We should be one of the better teams but we know we have to go out and prove it," Carlisle said. "We've got something to prove every night."
Didn't see this posted.