School of Hard Knocks
The Pacers are learning fast thanks to the oft-criticized lsiah Thomas
No coach draws more fire than the Pacers' Isiah Thomas, who over the last two years has been accused of everything from laziness to encouraging thuggish play. Those shots (mostly from anonymous league sources) draw angry retorts from team president Donnie Walsh, who argues that Thomas should be congratulated for keeping the young Pacers in the playoffs as they rebuilt following their run to the 2000 Finals under Larry Bird. "I said to Isiah, 'What did you do to piss people off?' " says Walsh.
Thomas took the insults as the highest compliment. "I heard those things," he says, "and that's when I knew I was on the right track. This is a very competitive league, and when you're doing things the right way, the other 28 teams say things to try to get inside your team and tear it down, but that only made me more stub-born about what I was doing."
Much of the credit for Indiana's 29-11 start should go to Thomas, the leading candidate for the Eastern Conference coaching spot in the All-Star Game. (Byron Scott, whose Nets were 28-11 at week's end, is ineligible because he led the East last year.) The Pacers are no easy team to coach—with the exception of 37-year-old Reggie Miller, they average just 3.2 seasons of NBA experience—but Thomas has them all on the same page. The read-and-react offense he installed this season had produced 98.8 points per game through Sunday (No. 4 in the league), with five players averaging double figures. The offense also takes pressure off point guard Jamaal Tinsley, the No. 27 pick in the '01 draft, who at week's end ranked sixth in the league with 7.5 assists per game. "When he experiences failure," says Thomas, "we don't beat him up for it."
Though Thomas disputes that he doesn't work hard—and team insiders, citing his zealous film study and year-round devotion to his job, back him up—he is happy to hear that his methods aren't popular. Some rivals equate the physical play of swingman Ron Artest and center Brad Miller with the chippiness of Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer, who with Thomas developed into the Bad Boy Pistons of the late 1980s. "He's got some beasts out there who are about to really hurt somebody, and he just sits back and chuckles with that smile of his," Mavericks coach Don Nelson says of Thomas. "He's got a great basketball team, and he deserves a lot of credit for getting them to play the hard, hustling style he wants. But he's trying to mold them into the old Pistons. The difference is that the Pistons were physical, and these guys are just plain dirty."
Both Walsh and Thomas scoff at that charge. "We don't play rough," says Thomas, whose team, through Sunday, ranked 12th in personal fouls and 13th in disqualifications.
Recalling that it took his Pistons five heartbreaking post-seasons to reach the Finals, Thomas is prepared to watch his young team suffer through a tough learning experience in the playoffs. At the same time, it's hard to find an Eastern team other than the Nets with a better chance of getting to the Finals. "I wouldn't be surprised [to make it]," Thomas says. "Our guys are so far ahead of where they should be. When they get to the point where they know what to do just by looking at each other, that's when it's going to be really, really good."
U.S. Olympic Squad in 2004
Will Pierce Pay For Playing?
Celtics All-Star guard Paul Pierce senses that his reputation is suffering, and he is willing to take drastic steps to fix it. "Maybe I'll call David Stern," he says.
If he does get the commissioner on the phone, Pierce says he will ask to play for the U.S. team at Athens in 2004 as well as in the Olympic qualifying tournament this August in Puerto Rico. Pierce would seem to be an obvious choice: He's the league's fifth-leading scorer (25.6 points per game at week's end), and he led the U.S. in scoring (19.8 points) and was third in assists (3.9) at the World Championships in Indianapolis in August. While selection committee chairman Stu Jackson maintains that Pierce is a candidate for the team, other sources close to the committee say that Pierce has little or no chance because they believe he was a negative influence last summer. They note that he played selfishly and bickered too often with teammates. Pierce also publicly criticized coach George Karl, which didn't sit well with the committee.