Indiana tries to maintain its nucleus, The Bulls' Cleamons in demand, Rodman at his most outrageous
Break up the Pacers?
True, Indiana was one win away from the NBA Finals in each of the previous two seasons, but this spring the Hawks, seeded sixth in the Eastern Conference, eliminated the third-seeded Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. In that series Indiana looked lost without All-Star guard Reggie Miller, the team's scoring leader (21.1 average in 1995-96), who did not make an appearance until the deciding Game 5 because of a fractured right eye socket.
Now the franchise finds itself at a crossroads. Miller will become a free agent on July 1. So will frontcourt regulars Antonio Davis and Dale Davis. Unlike Miller, both Davises had mediocre seasons. Team president Donnie Walsh says he's confident he'll resign all three players, but even if he does, can the Pacers contend for a championship?
Apparently coach Larry Brown doesn't think so. Sources say Brown, who is prone to doubts about the potential of whatever team he coaches, was so despondent over the Pacers' early exit and lack of consistent scoring that he urged Walsh to split up the relatively young nucleus of Miller, the Davises, forward Derrick McKey and center Rik Smits. (All but Miller are in their 20's.) Walsh intends to do nothing of the sort.
"We never had a chance to be the team we'd thought we would be this season," says Walsh. " Smits was never Smits. He was hurt all year [ankle and leg injuries]. Then, finally, when we started to come around, Reggie went down."
Whether or not Miller stays, there will be a changing of the guards, or at least of the guards' rotation. Rookie point guard Travis Best, who was used sparingly in the regular season but showed considerable moxie against Atlanta, looms large in the team's future. Brown has vowed to "hand the kid the ball" next season—meaning the Pacers will try to move one of their other veteran point guards, Mark Jackson (unlikely, with two years left at $2.9 million and $3.2 million) or Haywoode Workman, who will draw interest because he plays tough defense and is a bargain at an average salary of $1.29 million over the next three seasons.
Last week Brown, unwittingly or otherwise, further muddled the Pacers' future. He was named a candidate for the coaching job in Dallas, even though he has three years remaining on his contract with Indiana.
According to Walsh, when he called Mavericks general manager Norm Sonju to recommend Pacers assistant Gar Heard for the Mavericks job (vacant since Dick Motta quit on May 1), Sonju inquired about Brown's status "in general terms."
"I told him I thought Larry was happy where he was, and if he made a move, it would have to include part ownership," says Walsh. "Norm never asked for permission to talk to Larry, and I didn't think much about it until I picked up my paper and saw Larry listed as one of their top candidates."