State of the Pacers
NBA teams should be forewarned: Indiana is angry and talented
Posted: Monday September 27, 2004 3:22PM; Updated: Monday September 27, 2004 3:22PM
Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Ron Artest is a player few opposing scorers have been able to solve.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Pacers At A Glance
Head coach -- Rick Carlisle
2003-04 Season -- Record: 61-21 | Stats
SF Stephen Jackson (Hawks)
C David Harrison (draft)
SF Al Harrington (Hawks)
PG Kenny Anderson (Pacers)
PG J. Tinsley A. Johnson
SG R. Miller S. Jackson
SF R. Artest J. Bender
PF J. O'Neal A. Croshere
C J. Foster S. Pollard
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We might as well be blunt about it: The Indiana Pacers missed a golden opportunity in 2003-04. They should have knocked off the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they would have destroyed the Lakers in the Finals. For six dominating months, everything worked well for the Pacers. Every play was executed to perfection, every defensive read made with little error. Then it all came unglued over the course of three weeks in May.
The good thing about this? The Pacers know it. They know they screwed up: from the exemplary ownership group, to personnel chiefs Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird, to Rick Carlisle, his staff and his dedicated group of players. To a man, they've spent the summer stewing. You didn't hear anything about 8 a.m. "mandatory" workouts in July, or the players shaving their heads in a show of team unity in August, but the focus is there.
This is an angry and talented team that understands permanence and impermanence. As such it wouldn't be a shock if the Pacers got off to a white-hot start to this season, ŗ la the Rockets in '93 or the Bulls in '95.
They'll do it because they can defend. Their exacting offense won't find its legs until January; in the meantime, Indiana will lock down opponents and get easy buckets in transition. Ron Artest will hit left-handed lay-ups off of Jeff Foster's outlet passes, and Reggie Miller will nail three-pointers off of fast breaks started by a stern Jermaine O'Neal rejection from the other end.
The other O'Neal
O'Neal is the key to this team on both ends. When he is on his game there is no better power forward in the league; he can jump over and around Tim Duncan any night he chooses. He hit for 20 points and 10 rebounds a game last year while averaging 2.6 blocks and was easily the East's MVP after Baron Davis shot his way into oblivion. And at 26 years of age, he can improve. He'll need to for Indiana to take down San Antonio next June.
O'Neal's dilemma, oddly enough, may be that he is too talented. After breaking his right hand in high school, O'Neal developed a devastating left hook and learned to go over either shoulder on either block. (Charles Shackleford would call him "amphibious.") Problem is, he can appear hesitant when he goes up for an attempt, as if he is overwhelmed by the sheer array of moves he has at his disposal. Still, this doesn't excuse O'Neal's unfortunate 43 percent shooting from the floor; he needs to connect more often.
O'Neal is a center, more or less, but Jeff Foster will have an upper-case "C" next to his name on opening night. Foster is your typical athletic banger: He can jump, use six fouls and let O'Neal roam for weak-side blocks. And on those few occasions he does shoot, Foster's 54 percent from the floor doesn't hurt.
Scot Pollard was brought in last season to give Foster and O'Neal some rest, but he struggled mightily and looked two steps slow. Apparently, anyone can look like Carl Lewis past his prime after playing alongside Vlade Divac and Chris Webber for five years.
Crazy like a fox ... we think
Artest is No. 2 on this team -- to everyone but Artest. Ron-Ron is a peculiar, and arresting individual. No other player in the NBA intrigues as much as Artest, with the possible exception of Kevin Garnett. Artest's motivations and resulting courses of action often defy reason, even after five years in this league. But for all of his temper tantrums, hard fouls and broken cameras, Artest is the league's best all-around defender and quite possibly the NBA's most underrated and versatile scorer. This despite the fact the man can't jump. Still, he manages to stay in front of the league's quickest guards and worm his way around the league's better defenders on his way to the front of the rim. Artest can post-up, make the extra pass and bring the ball upcourt. He's a basketball player like they used to make them.
Dogged and unselfish to a fault, he is the Pacers' most versatile pawn. Bird asked Artest before last season to curtail his insistence on patrolling the passing lanes for turnovers and concentrate on straight-up defense. The effort helped the Pacers hold their opponents to an average of a 85.6 points per game. As quirky as he is, the Pacers did the right thing in hanging on to him this summer. After all, doesn't every champion need to be a bit eccentric?
Artest will wear No. 91 this year. Sounds about right.
Don't call them Al
Filling out the frontcourt will be more difficult this year without Al Harrington (traded to Atlanta), an underrated defender who could sop-up minutes at both forward positions. In his absence Austin Croshere and Jonathan Bender will have to show a bit more life.
Bender, a sinewy 23-year-old who oozes talent, averaged more than 26 points-per-48 minutes last year but could only stay healthy for 21 contests, averaging less than 13 minutes a game. That isn't exactly the type of return Indiana was hoping for when it balked at paying Brad Miller. The Pacers would probably ship Bender to the Bulls for Antonio Davis' expiring contract in a second, some five-and-a-half years after AD was deemed "too old" for the blue and gold.
After a few lost seasons under former coach Isiah Thomas, Croshere turned his game around -- slightly -- for Carlisle last season. The Pacers would like to let Croshere loose in the second quarter, as they did with Harrington last year. Sounds good on paper, but Croshere's sub-40 percent shooting from the floor is the reality. Croshere thinks too much, he dashes to the hoop when he should be shooting or chucks a trey when there's an open lane.
Reggie targets his successor
Newly acquired off-guard Stephen Jackson will come off the bench initially, spelling Reggie Miller, which is the way it should be. Miller's not going to do anything off the bench, he's consistent and knows how to execute the offense, whereas Jackson is still figuring things out (having played on four teams in three years). Miller continues to decline -- 10 points per game in 28 minutes a night last year -- but he's still connecting on 40 percent of his three-point attempts, and he still scares opposing coaches every time he comes off a screen.
Miller's biggest contribution, though, will be in the locker room. Jackson is obviously his replacement, and the 39-year-old former All-Star surely can see the writing on the wall. Jackson will need the help. While he averaged more than 18 points for a horrendous Hawks team in '03-04, questions abound: Is Jackson ready for what NBA-types call a "consistent and structured offense?" Can he play defense? Will Carlisle feel like wringing his neck during a shoot-a-round in Orlando next February?
After bouncing around the league during his first few seasons, this is Jackson's big chance. He won a ring with San Antonio in '03 but little was expected of him besides hitting the open shot and scoring in transition. That isn't the case anymore. Not with the lucrative contract. Not with the target he has on his back -- now that the rest of the league knows he can score 18-points a game. And not when he will be expected to listen, and eventually replace, the legend ahead of him.
Learning the blues
Aside from O'Neal, no player was more sorry to see Thomas fired last year than Jamaal Tinsley, who moved from starting point guard to the bench under the Carlisle-Bird regime. To his credit, Tinsley kept quiet as Kenny Anderson took most of the snaps early while Anthony Johnson became a consistent (and exceptional) presence off the bench. Slowly, though, by demonstrating a steady hand -- and nearly a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio -- Tinsley won back his job and re-established himself as the Pacers' point guard of the future. If Tinsley subscribes to Carlisle's ball-control offense, cedes ball-handling duties to Artest for spells and saves his derring-do for the transition game, he could find himself an NBA champion at age 27.
After Thomas' inconsistent run on the bench , Carlisle has provided discipline and a cogent plan of attack on both sides of the ball. The result was an NBA-best 61 wins and a berth in the East finals. Carlisle, once again, will have to find a happy medium between exhorting his players -- and insisting they stay focused -- and giving them room to make and learn from their mistakes.
Theoretically helping with that task will be Kevin O'Neill, who returns to the NBA fold as an assistant after flaming out as a head coach in Toronto.
That makes for one angry bench. Maybe a little fire is what these Pacers need, to remember this past spring. Look out, NBA.
Center: Jeff Foster -- Needs to establish a consistent baseline jumper and find ways to stay on the court and out of foul trouble.
Power Forward: Jermaine O'Neal -- Got married and passed on the Olympics, so he should be fresh for '04-05. Good thing, because he'll have to exceed his 20-and-10 averages in the playoffs. Also tallied 16 technical fouls last season? Ride easy, JO.
Small Forward: Ron Artest -- Only ... 24 ... years ... old.
Shooting Guard: Reggie Miller -- The perfect mentor for Stephen Jackson, but is he up to the challenge?
Point Guard: Jamaal Tinsley -- Not Rod Strickland, but not John Bagley either. This is good?
Jonathan Bender -- Last chance to shine before Bird gives him a change of scenery.
Austin Croshere -- Can still play -- I swear.
Eddie Gill -- Enjoys shooting the ball: catching and shooting the ball or dribbling and shooting the ball.
Stephen Jackson -- Now enjoys the luxury of being the second-most eccentric guy on the team.
Fred Jones -- An undersized shooting guard who can put up points in a hurry. It's still hard to see where he will find minutes.
James Jones -- Should see the words "Lowgators" or "Riverdragons" on his caller ID sometime next January.
Anthony Johnson -- An underrated point guard whose jump shot has come a long way.
David Harrison -- Made it to the first round, but he's a project that needs a lot of work.
Scot Pollard -- Cashed checks with the best of 'em in 2003-04.