Sean Deveney's SportingBlog
Pacers don't fit in new NBA
August 1, 2006
For the past 15 years, the problem for the Pacers has been one of a very good team unable to be great. They've been to the playoffs 16 times since 1990 but played in only one Finals. Heading into last season -- and the season before -- it seemed the Pacers had the talent and the motivation to break that good-but-not-great voodoo. Until, at least, the antics of Ron Artest squashed the hopes of each of the last two Pacers teams before the Christmas shopping season got rolling.
It could be the curse of Zan Tabak. You may remember, Tabak was a little-used center on the Pacers' Finals team in 2000. I remember during a media session after a practice at Conseco Fieldhouse, Biff Henderson, a producer for David Letterman's show, was filming a bit for that night. The Henderson film crew approached Tabak, and Henderson said, on the air, "You know, you're the third seven-foot Croatian named Zan I met today." Now, Tabak played 18 games all season for the Pacers and was not accustomed to interviews. Poor guy. The first one he gets is Biff Henderson. I swear, at that moment, Tabak gave Henderson a look that not only cursed him, but cursed the Pacers, the NBA and the entire sport of basketball. Perhaps that curse on the Pacers stuck.
Entering this year, it looks again like the Pacers will break the good-but-not-great jinx. But that's because this year, I'm not sure this team even qualifies as good.
Thanks to the NBA's new rules interpretation, there's no question that the league is turning to increasingly smaller lineups featuring more versatile players. And, looking at the Pacers' roster, it seems the franchise is stocking up on that type of player. The awaited return of Al Harrington gives them small forward capable of playing power forward. Second-year man Danny Granger will be a solid NBA wing man. Rookies Shawne Williams and James White were high-value picks in this year's draft. Marquis Daniels, acquired in a trade from Dallas, can play three positions.
OK, so the Pacers want to pick up the tempo, and they're building a Phoenix-ish roster. But Indiana is still coached by Rick Carlisle, a guy who prefers the Chinese water torture pace -- you know, drip, drip, drip till you submit. Carlisle is good at coaching that way. He twice won 50 games in Detroit with that method and won 60 games in his first season with Indiana. What makes the Pacers think Carlisle will suddenly morph into Mike D'Antoni? Or that he should?
Perhaps, if you're wondering why Carlisle does not have a contract extension yet, the answer is that Pacers brass can't foresee Carlisle adapting to the new NBA. Maybe the new rules have rendered Carlisle a dinosaur at age 46. I have a hard time imagining Larry Bird firing his friend and protege, but then, once it becomes clear that the Pacers are not so good, Bird is going to need to cover his own rear.
That's because, though the Pacers have added eight players, the changes have been cosmetic and the real work has not been done. This team did not need to trade Austin Croshere or Anthony Johnson or Peja Stojakovic. They were not the problem. Indiana needed to dump Jamaal Tinsley and Stephen Jackson. Or at least one of them. Tinsley has done plenty of damage for the Pacers -- in the locker room. He pouts. He does not practice. He milks injuries. But instead of trading him, the Pacers moved backup Johnson, solidifying Tinsley's spot as the starting point guard. Tinsley missed at least 30 games for the third straight year and, effectively, got a promotion. That sends some kind of locker-room message, eh?
Oh, and, has anyone else wondered how the Pacers plan to run more with Gimps-ley as the starting point guard?
Part of the problem is Bird himself. One of the advantages of having him in the front office was supposed to be his ability to work with players and keep guys in the locker room in line. But two agents I spoke with said Bird is standoffish with his players, and that players don't like playing for him. If there is a solution to the Pacers' locker room troubles, it sure is not coming from Bird. He has always been the tight-lipped type and has a well-earned disdain for the pampering that the modern player requires. But apparently, players feel it would be good for the team if there was a sense that Bird is engaged. "He is very condescending," one agent says.
Even if Bird turns into St. Larry, that won't solve the Pacers' woes. Behind Tinsley are Sarunas Jasikevicius, Darrell Armstrong and Orien Greene. Assuming Tinsley sits out his customary 40 games this year, which of those players would you want to be your starting point guard? I'm going with Armstrong, 38 years old and still ticking.
And if Jermaine O'Neal gets hurt, forget it. Harrington would play the four-spot with, um, Maceo Baston behind him. But that is indicative of where this roster is now. Too many wings, no point guard, no depth up front. At least Pacers fans won't have their high hopes dashed. The best they can hope for this year is so-so.