SI Vault
 
No. 5 INDIANA PACERS
William F. Reed
November 10, 1997
When the Pacers obtained small forward Chris Mullin from Golden State, it became clear that they wanted to make a serious title run this season, and the hell with the future. At 34, Mullin is nearing the end of a career that someday may earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame, and the Pacers are nearing the end of the Reggie Miller-Rik Smits era that once seemed so promising. Indeed, last season the Pacers looked stale and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1988-89.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 10, 1997

No. 5 Indiana Pacers

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

BY THE NUMBERS

1996-97 TEAM STATISTICS
Record: 39-43 (sixth in Central)

SEASON AVERAGES

Points per game (rank)

FG pct. (rank)

Rebounds per game (rank)

Turnovers per game (rank)

Pacers

95.4 (19)

.456 (14)

41.7 (10)

16.3 (21)

Opponents

94.4 (9)

.440 (7)

39.8 (7)

15.7 (14)

When the Pacers obtained small forward Chris Mullin from Golden State, it became clear that they wanted to make a serious title run this season, and the hell with the future. At 34, Mullin is nearing the end of a career that someday may earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame, and the Pacers are nearing the end of the Reggie Miller-Rik Smits era that once seemed so promising. Indeed, last season the Pacers looked stale and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1988-89.

Last May, when the Pacers hired one Larry B. (Bird) to replace another (Brown) as their coach, they got Mullin's attention. Although Mullin and Bird were teammates on the original Dream Team, in the 1992 Olympics, Mullin has always regarded Bird more as a role model than as a peer. Going back to his high school days in New York City, Mullin was a fan of Larry Legend. "Larry's the guy I looked up to and basically learned to play from," he says.

In his 12 seasons with Golden State, Mullin was more or less a lefthanded version of Bird, only without the supporting cast that Bird had enjoyed in Boston. The resemblance was strongest not so much in the numbers that Mullin put up, though they were plenty impressive (five consecutive seasons of averaging at least 25 points), but in his selfless approach to the game. "He plays the way I liked to play," Bird says. "He'll know when to pass and when to cut and when to shoot. He's a playmaker. He's an average defensive player, like I was, but he seems like he's always around the ball. He'll make everybody better, instead of just worrying about his points."

In other words, he figures to be more than adequate as the small forward replacement for the erratic Derrick McKey, who has never served as an offensive catalyst. (McKey, recovering from a ruptured right Achilles tendon, probably won't be available for backup duty until around Christmas.) When Mullin is on the floor, he and shooting guard Miller will give the Pacers a wicked three-point presence that should stretch defenses and open up the inside for 7'4", 265-pound center Smits. In addition, Mullin's ball handling and playmaking ability will take some of the pressure off point guard Mark Jackson, who last season supplanted the Jazz's John Stockton as the league leader in assists.

"Playing against [Mullin]," Bird says, "you always had to watch him. He's sneaky. He could get points off of garbage, and he was one guy we knew could always make the big play at the end of the game."

Mullin, a career 86% free throw shooter entering the season, should help the Pacers improve in that department. (Last season the team shot only 72.2% from the line, 21st in the league.) He won't shore up the Pacers' spotty defense—he's too slow afoot—but Bird is hoping that new assistant Dick Harter, a noted defensive specialist, can make a difference in that area.

For his part, Mullin is tickled to finally be on a team that has plenty of beef. Last summer, when he was a teammate of the Pacers' 6'9", 230-pound forward-center Antonio Davis in a charity game in California, Mullin couldn't help but feel wistful. "I just looked up at him," Mullin says, "and thought, Wow, this is nice here, having a guy with that kind of body on my side." Well, besides Antonio, his side will also have forwards Dale Davis (6'11", 230) and rookie Austin Croshere (6'9", 235), new backup center Mark West (6'10", 246) and Smits, who is coming off a season wrecked by foot surgery. (Smits says he still has a trace of pain: "The area on my [right] foot that was bothering me has gotten smaller. It used to be a big area, and now it's a tiny little ball.")

Although Mullin says he's looking forward to learning from Bird, the truth is that he'll probably help the rookie coach more than Bird will help him. If Mullin fails to come up with a reasonable Bird imitation, however, it may be time for Pacers president Donnie Walsh to consider a complete overhaul of this team.

For Mullin, at least, it's a now-or-never deal. He thinks it's going to be now. "On a team that's going to play a style that fits my game," he says, "I don't think we'll be talking about my age."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

1