I believe David Stern has positioned himself to allow for a late season return for Ron Artest, and here's why:
Reggie Miller - Now that Reggie has decided to retire after this season, we have a compelling story. An NBA Championship has eluded Reggie for all of his 18 seasons, and to see him go out with a Ring would be good television. Regardless of all the conspiracy theories out there that claim Stern and the NBA would never let the Pacers win a championship, I believe rewarding a guy like Reggie with a championship on his way out would be something Stern could get behind. Reggie is one of the last, if not THE last holdover from the "olden days" of the NBA, from the days of Bird and Magic and Jordan. I think Stern would welcome the inevitable flash backs to the 80's and 90's that would be a part of a Pacer run for the title.
Ratings Part I - This ties in with Reggie's retirement plans and here's why: The only way it's going to be even remotely possible for Reggie and the Pacers to compete for a championship this year is if Ron Artest is allowed to return to the team. And not just for the playoffs, but for a few weeks before the playoffs so they have time to work him back into the game plan and allow the team to get on a roll to end the season. Reggie's storybook ending will never happen unless Ron is on the team.
Ratings Part II - Starting with the March 20th game vs the Nets, the Pacers are scheduled to appear on 3 of the last five Sundays on ABC, including the last two Sundays of the year vs the Knicks and the Heat. They also play the following games on national television to end the season:
Mar. 18th vs Lakers ESPN2
Mar. 31st vs Miami TNT
Apr. 5th vs Cavs ESPN
Apr. 13th vs Nets ESPN
With the flurry of nationally televised games to end the season, I can see Stern doing all he can to assure the best possible ratings for those games, especially the ABC games. Is anyone really going to care to see the Pacers play the Heat April 17th if the Pacers are out of the playoffs? Who would care? But, with Artest back in the mix and a resurgent Pacer team looking to prove itself against the best in the East in a possible preview of the ECF series, people will care.
Ratings Part III - The East is looking to be pretty boring come playoff time. Right now it's a two team race between Miami and Detroit. Washington and Cleveland are close, but I doubt they'll really be able to challenge this year. It's not going to be much fun watching Detroit and Miami waltz through the EC playoffs on the way to their inevitable ECF matchup. The NBA needs more intrigue than that. Throw the rejuvenated Pacers back into the mix and we have a better story to market.
AND, it's Reggie's last year. AND, people will watch to see if Artest is going to go wild again.
Time Served - By March 16th, Artest will have sat out 52 games. That's quite a punishment. Not only to Artest, but to the Pacer organization and its fans. Ron seems to have been doing all the right things during his suspension, which helps. The truth is, he could have gone off the deep end, gotten arrested, hit his girlfriend, got caught with drugs, etc. and nailed his coffin shut. He hasn't done that. The Pacer organization has done all the right things, too, their latest press conference regarding their charity donations the most evident among them. Ron has done his time with grace and dignity and that has to count for something.
Stern's refusal to shut the door - Last, but not least, all this speculation is fueled by Stern leaving the door open to Ron's return. He very easily could have answered recent questions about Ron's possible return by saying, without a doubt, that Ron is suspended for the year and will not be back. He did not do that. And I think he didn't do that for all the reasons I've outlined above. We know that things like ratings and money motivate Stern. That's a given. Because of that, I believe he's going to do what's best for the ratings and let Artest return sometime in mid-March.