“His response to the opportunity has been critical to us having a chance to win,” Carlisle said after the switch. “I’ve loved his approach the whole time. Even when he was out of the rotation and not injured, he kept working. He just kept his head in it and was very professional.” While Tinsley’s re-emergence was vital to the Pacers’ success, the emergence of a kinder, gentler Ron Artest was also key. Artest made his first NBA All-Star appearance, joining O’Neal on the Eastern Conference roster, and was eventually named NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
While Artest’s talent and tenacity had never been questioned, his judgment and on-court antics, which resulted in 12 game suspensions for flagrant fouls and other indiscretions in 2002-03, had been a cause for concern.
Artest answered those questions by putting together the best season of his young career, blending 18.3 points per game (second on the team behind O’Neal) with his smothering perimeter defense. He became one of the NBA’s elite performers, and gave the Pacers the scorer they needed alongside O’Neal.
O’Neal joined a handful of players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds (20.1 points and 10.0 rebounds). O’Neal joined MVP Kevin Garnett of Minnesota, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan (the 2003 MVP) and Portland’s Zach Randolph on that short list of players. He also made his second consecutive All-Star start and third straight All-Star appearance as his evolution into one of the NBA’s premier big men continued.
“Factoring in offense and defense, they’re the top forward combo in the league,” one NBA scout said of O’Neal and Artest in Sports Illustrated. “Throw in Harrington, who’s becoming a monster and it’s not even close.”