Bird Eager for OíNeal to Lead
By Conrad Brunner | May 24, 2005
The torch has been passed, and its new bearer already is feeling the heat.
With Reggie Miller's departure, Jermaine O'Neal assumes the mantle of team leader for the Pacers, and President Larry Bird said Tuesday he's anxious to see how the gifted forward grows into the role.
"Iíve got a lot of confidence in Jermaine and his ability to play ball, to come in next year and grab this team and take them in the direction they need to go," Bird said. "But still itís wait-and-see. I talked to Jermaine a couple of days ago about that. When Reggie walks out the door, thereís no one left. Iím not saying Reggie was the leader where he would come in before every game and talk to the guys and motivate them. But he was here every day. He did the things necessary to keep himself in great shape. He was great in the community. He did everything. And that's a void. Weíre going to miss that.
"I think Jermaine can do it. In the last two years Iíve seen a lot of maturity (in) Jermaine, and you know heís such a talent. Itís just that this franchise needs him to step up and play a bigger role."
Addressing the media in an informal question-and-answer session Tuesday morning in Conseco Fieldhouse, Bird reaffirmed the franchise's commitment to embattled forward Ron Artest, while leaving the door open to potentially major changes to the roster.
"We do have to get better," Bird said. "Even if Ron had played all year I donít know if we would have been a championship team, (but) we would have been a heck of a lot better. I think in the draft we will be able to pick up a player that will help us move forward, but will we make a lot of changes? I donít know.
"I think it all depends on Jermaine OíNeal. Iíll put the pressure right on him. If he comes back in great shape and heís got Ronnie on his side, and heís got Stephen Jackson, and Jamaal Tinsley and does the things he needs to do in the summer Ö Weíll be all right, but we do need to get better in certain areas."
Artest was suspended the final 73 games of the regular season and all of the playoffs for his role in the events of Nov. 19. But Coach Rick Carlisle said Friday he believed the team would welcome back the All-Star forward with open arms. Bird took much the same stance.
"Well, thereís always a concern about what happened last year, but are we sitting on pins and needles? No," Bird said. "We think that the guys matured and learned a lot from last year. You know you take Jermaine, Jamaal, and Ronnie, and Stephen, and theyíre completely different individuals, but we need all of them. Theyíre very talented, they know how to play the game, they know how to play together, they know what needs to be done in practice and during the games. So, like I always say, if those guys can come together and be on the same page weíll be fine.
"I know Ronnie probably a little bit better than you guys do. I know heís committed to win a championship. Heís committed to get better. He made a horrible mistake this year, and I donít think weíll have to worry about that anymore. We are committed to Ronnie."
The Pacers hold the 17th pick in the NBA Draft on June 28 and will be over the 2005-06 salary cap, meaning their flexibility in the free-agent market will be limited, though the mid-level exception will be available. If substantive changes are to be made, they'll most likely come through trades.
"As far as free agents, we canít just go out and pick up a player, but we do have a mid-level, we do have opportunities," Bird said. "We feel that we have a lot of talent on our team and thereís teams out there that want our players. So, if we can do anything to strengthen our team thatís what we need to do."
Bird said he would pay close attention to the players' commitment to offseason conditioning and rehab, if any. Summer league could also take on renewed importance, if for no other reason than Artest's participation, although Bird hinted some other veterans may also be involved.
Asked if it would be hard to remain committed to a player that didn't do the requisite offseason work, Bird replied, "very hard."
"I know who they are, and if they donít commit themselves, we have to move 'em, plain and simple," he said. "Youíre either in or youíre out."