The Dynasty That Never Was
There have been four teams since the demise of the six-ringed Bulls that have seemed like they were right there but couldn’t finish. The 2000 Blazers, a team that could have been legendary had it not frozen solid for a quarter, were the first; the 2001 Heat didn’t even have a chance to shine with Alonzo Mourning leaving a vacancy in the middle of what was otherwise a stifling lineup at every position, spoiling Riley’s vaunted “last phase”; the 2002 Kings suffered from one Laker dagger too many; there was another, though, in the very season that is our focus.
The Indiana Pacers hadn’t signed Lamar Odom or traded for Latrell Sprewell in a league-swirling four-way deal but they’d been busy in their own right. They had a nucleus worthy of fear that they enhanced by adding Rick Carlisle, who had never won less than fifty games in a season at that point, and they’d signed Kenny Anderson and Anthony Johnson for peanuts (the generic ones – they didn’t even have to give up any Planters). Improvement would come from within, they said, and they sure looked right sixty-one wins later.
I’ll always look back on all the hope they had; Jermaine O’Neal was third in MVP voting, Ron Artest was a virtual consensus for Defensive Player of the Year, Jamaal Tinsley was finally getting his head in the game and their bench was deeper than a bottomless pit. Al Harrington, who’s started ever since he left, was runner-up for Sixth Man of the Year, and Reggie Miller was playing like he was twenty-five. Their offense relied on smart, timely execution and their defense was horrifyingly effective, with each of their ten rotation players able to offer something different. The pinnacle of their glory came when O’Neal had a very intriguing proclamation for a reporter’s question on the supposed weakness of the East.
REPORTER: “When’s the next time you think an Eastern Conference team will win the NBA championship?”
JO: “This year.”
REPORTER (taken aback): “And what team will that be?”
JO: “The Indiana Pacers .”
At that point in the season, it was tough to argue with him. At a different point, things turned out in a way very few could have seen approaching.