Too much pain cut into Pacers' gains
Injuries at critical times curtailed team's chances to build momentum
By Mike Wells
There still are more questions than answers. Why can't they get along? Why can't they stay healthy? Why doesn't their coach trust them more on offense? Why does chemistry continue to be an issue? What would have happened if they hadn't used 61 starting combinations the past two seasons, or if Ron Artest hadn't asked out?
All of which is another way of asking: What happened to the team that just two years ago was poised to contend for an NBA championship?
Indiana Pacers players and management admit there are many mitigating factors -- chemistry, Artest and poor attitudes that have to change -- in the early start to their summer vacation, but they believe the primary reason is simple: injuries.
Said team president Larry Bird: "Some things didn't go the way they thought this year, and there was a lot of frustration. A lot of it has to do with injuries. We're not going to make excuses, but usually injuries come and go, but we had a majority of pretty serious injuries this year. . . . I don't want to sit here and beat it to death, but we've had as many injuries as anybody in the league, and to key players."
Said coach Rick Carlisle: "Injuries are tough on what we try to do as a coaching staff. It forces players to do more than they did in the past. In certain situations, guys aren't able to do what the guys ahead of them can do."
Said Jermaine O'Neal: "You could really tell that guys got worn down physically and mentally. It's hard to deal with this stuff for two straight years. Normally you only go through tough times for a couple of months, not two straight years. It was a difficult situation. It was tough this year because we didn't know who was going to be able to play on almost a game-to-game basis."
Next question: How can Bird and CEO Donnie Walsh fix something they can't predict?
The Pacers looked like a dysfunctional group at times, prompting point guard Anthony Johnson to say the culture of the team needs to change. Players tuned out Carlisle. Their 41-41 record was the worst since 2000-01, when they finished with the same record under Isiah Thomas. Their problems ran deeper than Artest demanding a trade.
Overhauling the roster can be done, but at what price?
"Making changes is a little harder than you think it is," Bird said. "You've got to have somebody on another team that wants to give you something good for what they're getting. Yeah, you can make trades every day. You can take one of your better players and go get some CBA players, but that ain't how it works. I'm willing to step back, which we are right now, to move forward, but I couldn't stand winning 35 games a year and knowing you'd be lucky to do that. That's not my nature. I want to win every game."
Instead, Bird wants players to come into camp better prepared for an 82-game season. He said a healthy team will translate into an established rotation. Starters will play more minutes. Reserves will know their roles.
O'Neal, Austin Croshere, Jamaal Tinsley and Jeff Foster, all part of the primary rotation of players, missed at least 19 games each because of injuries this season. The Pacers missed 236 man games because of injury or illness. What was supposed to be the deepest team in the league relied on backups.
Bird said there's a reason certain players are reserves: They play well one game, struggle the next. Inconsistency led to losses, which led to frustration, which led to more losses. Add in Artest's trade demand and subsequent departure, and the Pacers were caught in a vicious cycle with no clear escape.
"I just think (it was) the frustration of the time it took us to get somebody in here," Bird said. "The players will use every excuse. Then the trading deadline came and they were all worrying about getting traded. We've pretty much assured them we're going to try to keep the core of the team together. . . . I'm not going to blame everything on Ronnie. I knew we had a few more problems. Did I think they would come together? Yeah, I thought they would really come together then, but they didn't."
Artest said on his way out of town that he needed a fresh start.
The Pacers could use one, too.