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When the Pacers convene for their first practice of training camp Tuesday morning in Conseco Fieldhouse, they will look much like they did when last season ended with a Game 6 loss to Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals. The starting lineup hasn't changed at all. Not yet, anyway.
"From (the start of training camp), the competition for minutes starts," said Coach Rick Carlisle. "There arenít many guys on the team whose jobs are going to be guaranteed."
The second unit will have a bit of a new look because of the addition of Stephen Jackson and the subtraction of Al Harrington. Considering how well the Pacers did last season, there was little need for a major facelift. But a nip here and a tuck there can work wonders.
With actual basketball upon us, we take a look at the key issues facing the Pacers as they enter camp.
If This is Really Reggie Miller's Last Year, Will He Go Out with a Ring?
Over the summer, Miller said during an appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn on CBS that he wanted "to go after it one more time." Does that mean he's going to retire after this season? Or will he play out the two seasons remaining on his contract? Those are questions Miller may let linger throughout the season to avoid the subject of his future becoming a distraction. The Pacers may have their best opportunity for a trip to the NBA Finals in years. Though they'll have to prove capable of getting past the Pistons in the East, they no longer face the daunting, monolithic presence of the dominant Lakers in the West. The door, therefore, is open. And Miller will get one more chance -- at least -- to help lead them through.
What Impact will Stephen Jackson Have?
The acquisition of Jackson wasn't a big attention-getter, nationally. But the Pacers clearly targeted the athletic, versatile swingman as a high priority because they were swift and decisive in making the trade with Atlanta, and also were willing to pay a high price in the form of Al Harrington. There is therefore anticipation his impact could be profound. Jackson will give the team much more flexibility in its backcourt matchups, which could be a major factor against Detroit. His offensive skills mesh very well with the team's needs, because he is a slasher who can create shots inside the defense as well as a quality long-range threat. He could also energize the transition offense if that becomes a priority. It remains to be seen if he will supplant Miller as the starter at shooting guard but, either way, he'll play heavy minutes.
Is This Really Jonathan Bender's Big Year?
With Harrington gone, Bender will have his first real opportunity to occupy a prominent place in the regular rotation. Now standing 7-1 and weighing 240 pounds, Bender could spend some time backing up Jermaine O'Neal at power forward, as well. There is no question he has the ability to take that long-awaited step toward stardom. But can he avoid the nagging injuries that have sidetracked his progress the past two years? If so, the great things you've been hearing about for years could finally become manifest. If not, there will be no more excuses.
How Will Things Shake Out at Center?
Shaquille O'Neal's presence in the East, combined with Detroit's obvious front-line depth, has caused quite a bit of consternation among fans who wonder if the Pacers are good enough at center to win the conference. They won't be able to match up with O'Neal, but no one can. The Pistons didn't even try to in the NBA Finals, focusing their defensive efforts everywhere else. As well as Jeff Foster played last season, he was ineffective against the Pistons in the conference finals, scarcely playing in the final three games. The question thus becomes one of options, should Foster falter. Will Scot Pollard regain his Sacramento form? If so, the position will be dramatically updgraded. Will David Harrison be able to contribute as a rookie? The coaching staff isn't counting on it, but neither is the possibility being ruled out. It wouldn't be fair to say this is a position of concern, but it is one of interest.
Is There More Offense in Store?
Carlisle has been hinting since the end of last season that there might be some interesting offensive developments in store. Although he has stayed away from specifics, it appears clear the head coach would like the team to show at least a little more punch than last season, when the team averaged 91.4 points, a franchise-record low. Of course, the defense allowed a record-low 85.6, and that will remain the first priority. But it seems likely, with Jamaal Tinsley entrenched as the starting point guard and the additions of swift, active athletes like Jackson and Bender to the rotation, the team should be able to open things up at least a little more.
How Will Artest Handle Success?
When a young player -- and, at 24, Artest is still a young player -- gets his first taste of real stardom, it can have an intoxicating effect. Players who spend years battling for recognition sometimes aren't sure how to respond when it finally arrives. It certainly did so for Artest last season in the form of the Defensive Player of the Year award, and third-team All-NBA and All-Star selections. It's now up to Artest to prove the accolades didn't go to his head, and demonstrate the same kind of hunger to improve that got him to this point. Though his behavior throughout the regular season was dramatically improved, his postseason missteps re-opened the door on what could've been a closed subject. Only he has the power to make it go away, once and for all.
Will Tinsley Take Command?
Unlike last year, there is no question about who will start at point guard. Tinsley earned the job last season, beating out Kenny Anderson and earning the confidence of the coaching staff. Now, it's up to Tinsley to not only take firm command of the team on the floor, but continue to expand his game. Having been through the adjustment to Carlisle's highly placed priorities on ball-protection and sound decision-making, Tinsley now has the opportunity to grow within the framework of the offense and become a much stronger leadership force on the court. Literally and figuratively, the ball is going to be in his hands.