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Ian Thomsen
January 15, 2001
Changes At the TopThe rebuilt Pacers have yet to hit their stride
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January 15, 2001

The Nba

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Changes At the Top
The rebuilt Pacers have yet to hit their stride

Unlike the post-Jordan Bulls, who have started from scratch, and the '80s Celtics, who stuck to the bitter end with their veterans, the Pacers have taken the middle road: They are trying to rebuild from a position of strength. Few NBA finalists have undergone more changes than Indiana, which has three new starters and a rookie coach. At week's end the Pacers had tried nine starting lineups and, at 15-19, clung to a half-game lead for the last playoff berth in the East. "Our goal is to be the best team in the conference for the second half of the season," says coach Isiah Thomas. Is that reasonable? "In the East, yeah, it is."

Indiana has been shaped by two out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new swaps, which have had mixed results. Just after the 1999 draft, the Pacers sent 6'9" veteran Antonio Davis to the Raptors for the rights to 6'11" high school phenom Jonathan Bender, who at week's end was averaging only 3.8 points on 31.5% shooting. However, the swap in August of power forward Dale Davis, 31, to the Trail Blazers for untested Jermaine O'Neal, 22, paid off instantly. The 6'11" O'Neal is an explosive leaper with uncanny timing for blocking shots. In a few years he will be a star; in the meantime his averages of 13-4 points and 9.6 rebounds are comparable with the numbers the 31-year-old Davis put up last season.

In Indiana's biggest win of the season, a 93-91 overtime victory at Sacramento last Friday, O'Neal had team highs of 20 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks. The Pacers withstood several runs and seemed to come together—age differences be damned. (The team has six players 23 or under and, lately at least, three starters 34 or over.) "We finally showed ourselves that we're capable of playing at an elite level," says Thomas.

Trying both to build a team for the future and stay in postseason contention would be a hard juggling act even for a veteran coach. Though forwards Bender, 19, and Al Harrington, 20, have struggled, Thomas had played them a combined 29-3 minutes per game through Sunday. Power forward Jeff Foster, 23, has proved a dependable rebounder (5.2 in 15.3 minutes per game), but his playing time has fluctuated. Fourth-year forward Austin Croshere, whom Indiana re-signed for $51 million over seven years, was shooting only 375% and had been unable to land a steady role. "I've had to set pride aside and do what's best for the team," says Thomas, whose difficulties were compounded by a hellish schedule of 17 games in December.

Management is sensitive to the feelings of All-Star guard Reggie Miller, who spent 13 seasons trying to reach his first Finals. He was disappointed when team president Donnie Walsh dealt Dale Davis and let go point guard Mark Jackson. "If the young guys don't work hard, I'll have a problem with Donnie for doing it," Miller warned at the start of the season. "A lot of young players are not committed to winning. They're committed to buying cars and jewelry and making rap videos."

Apparently the youngsters have been trying their best, because Miller hasn't groused since then. Despite his volatile behavior on the court, Miller—who was raised in a military family—isn't one to complain or cause controversy off the court, even after seeing his shot attempts drop 20.5% since Jalen Rose returned from a broken left wrist. "The first 10 games we didn't have Jalen, and we were depending on Reggie," Thomas says. "Am I going to ask Reggie, at 35, to carry the load for 82 games? That's crazy. We know he's going to be there when we need him in the playoffs."

At week's end the Pacers had lost 14 of 24 games since Rose's return, calling into question Thomas's decision to start the 6'8" Rose at the point. In fact, the majority of the point guard minutes are going to 5'11" Travis Best, who is playing the best ball of his six-year career. Still, even Walsh admits that the Pacers aren't as finely tuned without Jackson at the controls. "They don't seem to run a lot of plays," says an opposing team's scout, "and they're sloppy with the plays they do run."

For all their ups and downs, Indiana might be a good bet to return to the Finals if center Rik Smits, who retired in September, were to come back. For now, the 7'4" Smits plans to remain active only on the Dutch team. "Do I think Rik's return is imminent?" says Walsh. "I'm not sure. He's said he might want to come back, and I would leave the door open. But he's not the kind of guy you keep calling to see if he's ready to come back. If he wants to do it, he'll let us know."

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