What happens when three weeks into the season, one of the top contenders for the NBA crown loses its three top scorers for the next few months?
Without Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson, it's tough to believe the Pacers have any real shot at the playoffs, let alone competiting for an NBA title.
O'Neal won't return to the court until Jan. 15. Jackson won't return until January 26. With Jonathan Bender out six weeks with a knee injury and other Pacers such as Jeff Foster and Scot Pollard also nursing injuries, can the Pacers rebound?
The Pacers had been worried for months that Artest was going to snap and that they'd lose him for the season. Now that their worst fears have been realized, how will they respond?
Despite the gloomy outlook, the Pacers do have several things going for them. In fact, they still have a route to the NBA title. Insider breaks it down.
# The appeal: A source inside the players' association told Insider that while the union feels that some action by the league was warranted, anything over 20 games was excessive and the association likely will appeal.
What will happen next? The union will file an appeal, but things don't look good. The players association can't ask for an independent arbitrator in this particular instance because the actions took place on the court.
Off the court incidents can be appealed to an independent arbitrator (like the Sprewell choking incident). However, because Artest's actions happened within the course of the game, the actions are deemed to have taken place "on the court."
The union will likely file a grievance trying to argue that the actions took place off the court because Artest went into the crowd. However, a league source familiar with the language of the rule claims that it's unlikely that they'll prevail with that argument.
There is an internal appeal process whereby players can petition the commissioner to reconsider -- something several of the players including Artest and O'Neal plan on pursuing -- but the final say rests with Stern.
If somehow the players win, Artest could be back before the end of the season and both O'Neal and Jackson could be in uniform before their current mid-January return dates.
# The schedule: The good news for the Pacers is that their schedule in December is relatively light. They have eight road games during that stretch and six are against the Clippers, Warriors, Hawks, Bulls, Bobcats and Nets -- arguably the worst six teams in the NBA.
Their home schedule is tougher, but still includes winnable games against the Bobcats, Bucks, Raptors, Sixers and Hornets.
However, in January, things get brutal. A four-game road trip against the Spurs, Mavericks, Suns and Grizzlies followed by a home game against the Suns could be a killer.
But even if the Pacers go 5-20 in their stretch without O'Neal and 7-23 in their stretch without O'Neal and Jackson, you still can't write them out of the playoffs just yet. That would put the team at 14-26.
That isn't great, but given how weak the East is at the moment, the ground they need to gain over the second half of the season isn't insurmountable. If they could move into a sixth seed somehow, they would actually avoid a potential problem that has worried them ever since the league realigned -- facing the Pistons in the second round of the playoffs.
# Several cap exceptions: The league likely will allow the Pacers to sign a few free agents to replace the three suspended players. Luckily for the Pacers, they didn't spend all of their exception money this summer. They have $2.7 million of their $4.9 million mid-level exception left. They also own their full $1.6 million exception.
There are several free agents that still haven't signed with teams. Marcus Haislip, Keon Clark, Michael Curry, Gary Trent and Troy Bell are among the players the Pacers could bring in to bolster their roster.
The team also is free to make a trade. That includes deciding to move Artest. While his trade value is at an all-time low, a team like the Knicks, who have shown enormous interest over him in the past, may be willing to make a deal now, hoping that he wins his appeal or, in a worst-case scenario, will be ready to play next season.
# The replacement players: The Pacers do have one of the deeper benches in the league and they'll need it now more than ever. Several of their top young players haven't had a lot of opportunities to play. Now that they're thrust into the limelight, can they pick up some of the slack?
Fred Jones has to step up with the Pacers' three top scorers out of the lineup.
Start with new starting 2-guard Fred Jones. Jones already had taken over a big role on the team this year with Reggie Miller out with a broken hand. His 31 points against the Magic on Saturday gave you a taste of what he's capable of doing without the other go-to guys in the lineup. Jones is a strong, athletic 2-guard who can defend and hit 3s. Expect him to put up big numbers during the stretch.
Austin Croshere will step in and replace O'Neal. Croshere looked like the next great thing four years ago when he helped the Pacers push the Lakers in the Finals. Since then he's been kind of lost in the shuffle the last three years. This year he's been playing big minutes for the injury-depleted Pacers and playing well. He's averaged 13 ppg and 7.8 ppg on 48 percent shooting the past five games. He's also one of the team's best 3-point shooters. He won't provide the toughness, rebounding or shot blocking that O'Neal does, but he isn't bad.
Second-year forward James Jones likely will get the call at small forward until Bender comes back from injury. Jones has played sparingly but had an impressive 12-point, 12-rebound performance in his first game against the Magic.
Don't count out Bender, either. When he's healthy, he's one of the more exciting young forwards in the league. He was going to sit out the next six weeks because of some soreness in his knee, but the Pacers may attempt to speed up that comeback now that they need him.
Also, don't forget about rookie David Harrison at center. Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh raved about him all summer and with both Foster and Pollard nursing injuries, he's been more than solid in the middle. He had 19 points and eight rebounds against the Magic on Saturday. He's still raw, but this gives the Pacers a wonderful opportunity to throw him out there and have him learn on the job.
# The unity factor: While it's tough to see a silver lining out of all this, the Pacers may end up getting two positives out of the whole thing.
One, a team that seemed quite fractured a week ago, appears to have bonded over the whole incident. Sources in Indiana claim that Artest's teammates haven't blamed him for what happened to the team. The fact that many of them rushed into the stands in his defense is a great sign.
Two, if players like Jones, Croshere and Harrison can carry the team over some of the rough spots, they'll be much better equipped to help the team once a well-rested O'Neal and Jackson return in mid-January.
David Stern may have landed a crippling blow to the franchise on Sunday. But it isn't over yet.
The Pacers may no longer be serious contenders for the Eastern Conference crown if Artest is not reinstated, but come mid-January, they'll still have enough firepower to make teams sweat in the East. And if Artest does come back this season, the Pistons will be the ones sweating in May.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.