Why Indy can and can't win it all

Originally Published: January 19, 2004
By Bill Walton | Special to ESPN.com

The master illusionist, Escher, always inspires us to query "How can that be? or "This can't be real, can it?"

Those same questions can be asked of this season's version of the Indiana Pacers, a team flirting with the best record in the NBA from the outset of Premiere Week seemingly a lifetime ago.

This current Pacers squad, despite all the hoopla surrounding the ineptitude of the Eastern Conference, can and should win the NBA championship. This year.

They have it all and if it doesn't happen they have only themselves to blame.

They have committed local, loyal and deep-pocketed owners in the Simon Brothers. They have savvy, instinctive, experienced and brazen front-office leadership in Donnie Walsh. They have stature, tradition, pride and a challenging, figure-head front man in Larry Bird. They have a maturing, conservative, patient, humble coach who has been to the top and knows what it takes to get back in Rick Carlisle. They have a perfect building and insatiable fans who will drive the team to unimagined heights.

But more than anything, the Indiana Pacers have players -- an interesting, compatible and flexible bunch that right now is enjoying unparalleled success.

And why shouldn't they be atop the NBA? The Pacers are loaded with a trio of young, dynamic stars in Jermaine O'Neal, Ron Artest and Al Harrington. These guys set the tone, attitude and self-disciplinary atmosphere needed to win big each and every time. They are big, athletic and increasingly versatile. They can swing with ease between being primary or complementary players. They can score, defend, rebound, pass, dribble, create and lead -- both on and off the court.

Most importantly, they believe that they can do all this against anybody.

The Pacers also have the complementary players needed to become champions. Point-guard play has come alive with the return of Jamaal Tinsley. He is adequately backed up by Anthony Johnson (There is no way New Jersey could have ever used this guy?) and the born-again Kenny Anderson.

They also have the necessary veteran skills and leadership in Reggie Miller, who, even though the numbers are not there anymore, I defy anyone to ignore or leave him open.

They have a combination of big guys that enjoy the physical game and bring more than enough in statistical productivity in a center-less era -- Jeff Foster, Austin Croshere and Scot Pollard. Together, they contribute a collective sense of consistent effort, heart and skill to a team that when all else fails can always fall back on Jermaine in the middle of their small lineup.

Deep down the rotation is a couple of ever-ready guys who are salivating to establish themselves as real NBA players in Freddie Jones and Jamison Brewer. Freddie -- with all due respect to Steve Jones and Danny Ainge -- is easily argued as the best player to ever come out of the state of Oregon. Jamison brings so much unbridled enthusiasm on a regular basis that it is amazing that Carlisle can continue to ignore him.

The Pacers have the size, strength and athleticism to get it done. They have individual stars at the big, small and in-between positions. They are rough and tough-minded enough to wear down, if not intimidate the opposition. They have the necessary discipline to hold up under the pressure and scrutiny of being the best. They have the level of perceived craziness that puts fear in the heart of the other team.

Their stars do it at both ends and are complete players -- not specialists. Their top players are the best on offense as well as defense. Their elite guys relish the dirty work and the opportunity to go head-to-head against the best that the rest has to offer. And when all else fails -- Artest, O'Neal and Harrington can win games by themselves, regardless of what the other team or Carlisle does to them.

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But then again, Escher has shown us that everything is not always as it seems.

Reggie Miller
Reggie Miller's leadership helps the Pacers, but his declining skills at 38 hurts them, too.
What happens when the Pacers have to play the big, bad bruisers from the West? Or Jason Kidd for that matter? Why does Carlisle slow it down so much? If you have the best team and players, speed it up and ensure victory.

Larry Bird is too aloof and remote, spending far too much time scouting in Florida. Donnie Walsh is going home to work with Isiah Thomas and perfect the pick-and-roll play with their newest savior Stephon Marbury and the rebuilt Knicks.

Can the Pacers control the tempo against the best? Can they defend, rebound and get to the foul line on the road?

None of their games are ever easy, so by playoff time they are worn down and out. Is Tinsley for real? Isn't he awfully short and slow? And his shooting sure seems suspect -- at best.

If the Pacers are so good why didn't it work for Isiah Thomas? The coach can't make that much of a difference, can he?

The bench -- outside of Harrington -- is perceived as soft, undersized and non-creative. Reggie is too old. Who is going to provide the necessary outside shooting? Their backcourt can't guard anybody. Who's going to listen to a guy who can't get it done anymore?

They overpaid a bunch of limited role players forcing them to ultimately give away an All-Star center in Brad Miller. They acquired Pollard in return, who seems to have retired without telling anyone.

Artest is a loose cannon rolling around on the deck of a listing ship -- a short fuse searching for a spark. Artest is playing out of position up front so that Reggie can keep playing.

O'Neal beats up on undersized and unskilled big men in the East but can't get it done against Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal.

This team is made up of a bunch of blow-hard bullies who can't back up the talk.

Who is going to score at the end against a dug-in defense and an expiring shot clock and game clock?

Hustle and determination only gets you so far. This team plays to its potential in the regular season but can't ratchet it up any higher in the playoffs.

The people of Indiana are too nice to create a hostile environment and an unbeatable home-court advantage.

The bench is fraudulent, there are no game breakers there.

Foster is a nominal performer, just trying to bide time until Harrington gets in there.

Croshere was a flash of light in the NBA Finals run four years ago and now they're stuck with him and his huge contract.

Anthony Johnson and Kenny Anderson have failed at every previous stop -- why should we believe now.

Freddie Jones and Jamison Brewer can't shoot. Who needs to guard them?

Jonathan Bender has been the worst move in franchise history.

Pollard is not healthy, happy and can't play in cold weather.

This team is destined for its fourth consecutive first-round playoff exit.

The championship history of the NBA goes through the games' best players, like Duncan and Shaq -- not merely an amalgamation of good ones.

Like Escher, this picture demands another look. I am pro-choice and I love this game!

Bill Walton, who is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, is an NBA analyst for ESPN. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

ESPN.com NBA Insider and Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton will again serve as a game analyst for ESPN's NBA telecasts. He joined ESPN and ABC Sports' in their inaugural season of NBA coverage in 2002.