Conrad Brunner

Q. The Pacers were considered a potential championship caliber team before "the trade," and the team is playing incredibly well after the trade (even better than before). The Pacers are playing without three of their potential starters in Jermaine (O'Neal), (Jamaal) Tinsley and (Austin) Croshere. When they come back the Pacers will have an energized (Scot) Pollard, a healthy (Jeff) Foster and an up-and-coming (David) Harrison in the middle; O'Neal, Croshere and (Danny) Granger at the power forward; Peja (Stojakovic) and Granger at the small forward; (Stephen) Jackson and (Fred) Jones and the shooting guard; Tinsley, (Anthony) Johnson and Saras (Jasikevicius) at the point. I see a very deep team with a lot of talent. With wins over Detroit and a near victory over San Antonio, could the Pacers be considered a potential championship caliber team (again)? (Jeff in Louisville, Ky.)

A. In the spirit of Valentine's Day, let's let our minds wander and entertain this romantic notion. The Pacers have played very well, for the most part, since acquiring Stojakovic from Sacramento. Considering their level of play in the immediate aftermath of the trade, it's reasonable to expect it to get better as time passes and Stojakovic's familiarity with his teammates (and vice versa) increases.
From a health standpoint, Croshere should be back soon after the All-Star break, with Tinsley not far behind. Both of those players certainly fit into the more free-flowing offensive system. In fact, assuming Tinsley can return to full strength, he should flourish. Croshere's ability to cause frontcourt defensive matchup problems with his shooting also will be welcome.
It remains to be seen, however, if O'Neal will be back at all during the regular season. There have been reports that he might miss the rest of the year, and there have been reports that he could return sooner than the original projection of eight weeks. Should he return late in the year, there will be the inevitable adjustment period while he regains conditioning and rhythm. At that point, the coaching staff must decide whether to continue with the current system or return to the halfcourt, inside-out approach built to showcase O'Neal's talents. However, acknowledging and agreeing with your points about the team's depth and talent level when at full strength, and taking the rather large leap of faith in assuming that, at some point, the team will actually be at full strength, it certainly is possible the Pacers could indeed be a scary team come playoff time. Detroit has been dominant but no one else in the East will carry an air of intimidation into the postseason. It could well depend on how the Pacers are able to position themselves in the bracket. The longer they can avoid the Pistons, the better.