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Pacers, Sonics on different paths for next seasonBy Chad Ford
ESPN Insider
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The Pacers and Sonics were both eliminated last night after shocking most of the NBA world this season. The Pacers for what they didn't do (thanks to suspensions and injuries). The Sonics for what they did (Insider picked them to finish last in the West).

Next year it should be a completely different story for both teams.

Pacers fans, whether you were disappointed or inspired by your team's roller coaster season, take heart. Next season Indiana should be the team to beat in the NBA -- even if Reggie Miller sticks to his retirement plans.

Barring another season of suspensions and injuries, the Pacers should have all the requisite ingredients for a champion coming into next season:

A great big man: Jermaine O'Neal continues to transform himself into a legit MVP candidate. Despite a season full with injuries, he posted his best PER (player efficiency rating) of his career. The key for O'Neal next year will be trusting his teammates. With a crippled supporting cast, O'Neal hogged the ball in the post at an unprecedented rate. If he can spread the love a little more, he'll be even more dangerous.

An excellent point guard: Jamaal Tinsley took a big step this year and, when healthy, was one of the five or six best point guards in the league this year. His PER rating of 19.02 was, by far the highest of his career. He almost doubled his scoring output and he's turned into an excellent defender. The Pacers quietly signed him to a modest extension last fall. It turned out to be an excellent move.

Fantastic depth: Guys like Stephen Jackson, Jeff Foster, Fred Jones and youngsters David Harrison and James Jones stepped up huge in the absence of many of the teams elite players this season. If Jonathan Bender can ever get healthy, they'll be as deep as any team in the East.

One of the best head coaches in the game: If you had any question about Rick Carlisle's chops, they were answered this season. Higher-profile guys like Larry Brown and Phil Jackson always get the love, but no one has done more with less than Carlisle has done the last four seasons. He found a way to get everyone in the team to buy into his system this year. The team bonded in a way that few teams ever do. If he can get that to carry over into next season, that cohesiveness will put them on par with what the Pistons have been doing in Detroit.

Ron Artest: From the sound of things, the Pacers have no intention of dumping Ron this summer. According to Carlisle and his teammates, Ron has regained his passion for the game (they have to get pounded by him in practice everyday) while gaining some much needed perspective and maturity over the past year. Everyone from Carlisle to O'Neal have raved about the changes Artest has made both on and off the court. If he can keep that focus through the summer, we could see a rested, hungry and in control Ron Artest for the first time ever. As Carlisle said Thursday night about Artest's return, "That'll be like having a lottery pick delivered to you."

The motivation: Everyone from Larry Bird to the ball boy thought this was the Pacers' year. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. Still, they persevered and turned one of the league's most demoralizing stories into an inspirational one. Next season the team will be as focused, determined and hungry as any team in the league. On November 19th, the night of the infamous brawl, the Pacers looked like they could whip the Pistons in a seven game series. With almost everyone coming back and huge chip on their shoulders, look for them to ride roughshod through the East and the West next season.

The Sonics are a different story entirely. The team has a whopping eight players hitting the free agent market this summer. Nate McMillan's contract is up. So is GM Rick Sund's.

To make matters worse, the Sonics are having a ton of financial trouble right now which is tied directly to bad lease they signed with Key Arena in 1995. Even with the success they had this season, the Sonics are estimating that they'll lose $17.8 million dollars this season. When you consider that their payroll stood at about $54.5 million (about six million under the average for the league) and won't be paying a luxury tax  that's shocking.

That means that ownership has a very tough decision this summer. They could spend the money to re-sign all of their free agents if they want  but it would mean losing a huge amount of cash again next season. Or, they can cut payroll, try to save some money, and watch the team sink back down into the lottery.

At this point, nothing is certain in Seattle.

For starters, McMillan, who finished third in coach of the year voting, is going to get serious interest around the league from a number of teams including the Knicks, Timberwolves, Magic and possibly the Cavs. While Nate has strong ties to Seattle, will he bolt knowing that ownership might not be able to afford to field a winning team next year? Or will he leave because management didn't think enough of him this fall to work out an extension.

The free agency situation isn't much better.

Ray Allen, Antonio Davis, Jerome James, Vladimir Radmanovic, Reggie Evans, Damien Wilkins, Ronald Murray and Vitaly Potapenko are all free agents.

Allen and Daniels reportedly would like to bolt. Given that the Sonics don't want to break the bank with either guy, the chances that they leave are pretty high. Allen tried to work out an extension with the team throughout the season and is frustrated with what the Sonics are offering. The truth is that Allen will have a hard time getting his asking price anywhere in the league. Most of the teams that are under the cap are bad, and won't want to spend the bulk of their money on a 30-year-old two guard regardless of how well he played this year. The Cavs and the Clippers are really the only two teams that might spend the money, but they both have higher priorities.

Daniels is also an unrestricted free agent and will likely get his salary doubled next year. The Sonics could afford to offer him more, but they're ready to hand the point guard duties to Luke Ridnour full time, and can't afford such an expensive backup. The opportunity to start on a good time like the Cavs, Rockets, Lakers or Jazz should be enough to convince him to leave.

I don't see them re-signing James. He's been impressive in the playoffs, but it's the equivalent to a deathbed confession  I'm not sure how sincere it really is. Despite James' lack of production the past few years, someone is going to make him a pretty big offer based on his performance in the playoffs. I think the Sonics will be too risk adverse to spend that type of money knowing what they know about him.

They'll probably keep Radmanovic because he's a restricted free agent and no one is likely to make him a huge offer. While Radmanovic will generate a lot of interest around the league, it would take a starting salary of six to seven million before the Sonics wouldn't match. Right now, it looks like all the teams with cap room have higher priorities.

The same may hold true for Flip Murray, especially if Allen bolts.

Wilkins has been great for them in a reserve role this season and had several big games in the playoffs versus the Spurs. Wilkins is a restricted free agent this summer and the Sonics will likely keep him as long as he doesn't get an outrageous offer.

Evans is another difficult one to call. He gives them toughness and energy in the paint. That's been a big key for the Sonics this season. They do have Nick Collison and Danny Fortson to help clean the glass. But of the three, Evans is the best rebounder of the group. In fact his rebound rate this season (which is minute sensitive) was the best in the league. He's going to get a lot of interest from other teams desperate for some low post toughness next year and should command a big raise from the $880,000 he makes this year.

Where does that leave the Sonics?

If they pass on re-signing Allen, James, Potapenko and Evans, they could re-sign Radmanovic, Murray and Wilkins and still have enough in the bank to make a big offer to a younger big man like Tyson Chandler, Samuel Dalembert or Eddy Curry.

A combo of Rashard Lewis, Ridnour and either Chandler, Dalembert and Curry would form a very nice young core. If younger players like Robert Swift, Collison, Radmanvic, Murray and Wilkins continue to develop the Sonics might not be a playoff team overnight, but they could have a bright future.

If they use up all of their money re-signing Allen, James, Daniels, Radmanovic and Evans however, the Sonics could field close to the same team they did this season. However, they'd lose a little depth, have a tough cap position for the future and still probably aren't more than a team that can get to the second round.


Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.