Bigger, better East will be tough to win

October 20, 2004

This is not your father's Eastern Conference anymore. The NBA champions, the Detroit Pistons, come from the East. Now Shaquille O'Neal, the most dominant player in basketball when he weighs less than a bread truck, is in the East.

Even the perennial soft touches have become competitive. Cleveland with LeBron James. Boston with Doc Rivers. Philadelphia with a healthy Allen Iverson and a coach he respects, Jim O'Brien. Even the Atlanta Hawks show signs they might awaken from their decade-long stupor. Seriously.

The point being, the Indiana Pacers, who opened their home exhibition season Tuesday night at Conseco Fieldhouse against Minnesota, have to be better than they were last season if they want to reach the conference finals again.

And to reach the NBA Finals?

Not with this group as it's presently constituted. Not without picking up another useful big man some time during the season. Not if they're going to beat Detroit, which added Antonio McDyess, re-signed Rasheed Wallace and has Darko Milicic one year closer to getting off the bench. Not if they want to hope to compete with Shaq, who has stepped on Indiana's dreams before.

Without question, most of the pieces are in place. Without question, this is a 55- to 60-win team. If their top players remain reasonably healthy, there's no reason to think the Pacers won't be fighting the Pistons and Heat for a chance to play in the Finals.

But in my mind, team president Larry Bird and chief executive Donnie Walsh only got half the job done this offseason.

They made a fabulous move, picking up Stephen Jackson to give them scoring at the shooting guard position and a ready heir apparent for when Reggie Miller retires.

The other part of the job, though, needs finishing.

They still need to get another big man to help Jermaine O'Neal, who had Wallaces hanging on him last spring like he was some kind of teen idol.

Again, this isn't the old Eastern Conference, where Brad Miller can be an All-Star center.

Now 'Sheed will be in Detroit the entire year. Shaq makes the Heat as big a threat as Detroit or Indiana to come out of the East.

The Pacers' big-man options? There aren't many. Not on the current roster, anyway. (Come back, Primoz. All is forgiven.)

Scot Pollard, who was picked up in a fruitless effort to salvage something from the Brad Miller deal, has been a non-factor.

That leaves David Harrison, who stayed in Indy this summer and worked hard on his conditioning. But he's a rookie. And rookies, especially those picked at the back end of the first round, don't make much of an immediate impact.

It's the only blemish on a team that is otherwise easy on the eyes.

The Pacers need O'Neal to have another MVP-quality season. They need Ron Artest to continue to refine his game on and off the court. They need Jamaal Tinsley, who got hungry after losing his starting job last season to Kenny Anderson, to stay hungry.

The only real mystery continues to be practice legend Jonathan Bender, who is heading into the fifth and final year of his contract and is -- yes, once again -- sidelined with an injury. He expects to return Monday.

The Pacers have been waiting for him since he was drafted fifth overall in 1999, and it just hasn't happened. Some of it has been on Bender, but most of it, in fairness, has been the result of injuries.

"I've learned so much about MRI's, CAT scans and parts of the body," Bender said. "I ought to be a doctor by now."

Asked Tuesday if he's ever felt like he's turned a corner in this league, he shook his head.

"Never, not once," he said disgustedly. "Just a couple of highlights."

This is his best and last chance. Al Harrington is gone, but his minutes are not. The opportunity is there. It's make-or-break time.

The Pacers can still go a long way without Bender ever developing; they had plenty of success last year without him having any sustained impact. But if he suddenly comes of age -- which means staying healthy for more than 10 minutes -- he will give Bird and Walsh a lot more options come the trading deadline.

This year, it must be Indiana's turn to make the season-changing Rasheed-type deal.

Because in today's Eastern Conference, size does matter.

Bob Kravitz is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star. Call him at (317) 444-6643 or e-mail