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Indiana's time to step up

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Neither Reggie Miller's playoff heroics nor Jermaine O'Neal's empty boast that he was "unguardable" proved enough to get the Indiana Pacers past last season's first round opponents, the New Jersey Nets. Pacers' GM Donnie Walsh spent the summer looking for a "championship move" but did not find one. The consensus was that the 42-40 Pacers underachieved in Isiah Thomas' second year as head coach. But there is hope amidst the disappointment. They were the youngest team in the league (and the youngest to ever make the playoffs). They were coming off a blockbuster midseason trade sending off their leading scorer, Jalen Rose, in return for Ron Mercer, Ron Artest, Brad Miller and Kevin Ollie. The others adjusted well but Mercer, the best of the bunch, basically did not start to play until the playoffs. Early Sixth Man candidate Al Harrington was out with injury, and early Rookie of the Year Candidate, Jamaal Tinsley succumbed to fatigue and nagging injuries, and was a playoff no-show.

Heading into this season the refrain from the team is that "youth isn't an excuse anymore." Hopefully, age won't be either as Reggie Miller heads into his 16th season in the league. Make no mistake about it this is still Miller's team. How many more clutch performances will we need to see from Reggie before he is mentioned as one of the greatest players in his generation?

The other marquee Pacer talent is post-presence Jermaine O'Neal. He seemed on the verge of superstar status until his disappointing playoff performance coupled with his poor showing in the World Basketball Championships. O'Neal, the team's only All-Star last year, has already had his break out year. Now Jermaine needs to follow Reggie's words and "be his [Tim] Duncan or [Kevin] Garnett."

Perhaps O'Neal will be motivated by the fact that his teammate, Brad Miller earned a World Basketball Championship bronze medal from playing with CBA-caliber players in 1998, while O'Neal and his NBA teammates were only sixth best. The "other" Miller built on his bronze medal performance and has gone from an undrafted benchwarmer to a legitimate NBA center.

The rest of the Pacer's frontcourt is crowded. A major battle is shaping up for the starting 3 spot between Al Harrington and Ron Artest. Harrington has earned the nickname "Hurricane," but Artest's frantic pace make Al look more like a gentle breeze. Artest is the guy you hate on the other team, but love to have on your own. Regardless of who starts, Harrington probably is the better player because he is more consistent on offense and because his defense is almost as good as Artest's. Austin Croshere is the odd man out only because Donnie Walsh would not give him away this summer (and that's the best offer he got). Rebounding machine Jeff Foster and slow-footed Slovenian Primoz Brezec return to back up the 4/5 spots.

Jamaal Tinsley was a starting rookie point guard last year. Rookies are not supposed to start at point guard in the NBA, as Tinsley showed with his turnovers, poor shooting and too-often lazy play. But, he can hardly have a sophomore "slump" after the way he finished last season, and his improved work ethic was the summer buzz in Pacers' coverage. Erick Strickland was brought in as Tinsley's back-up and is much better than athletically gifted fringe player Jamison Brewer.

Ron Mercer may be the best back up shooting guard in the league. His performance in last year's playoffs may earn him time at the point as well. Jonathan Bender is the great enigma. He has to be one of the best players "on paper" of all time: Legitimate seven footer; quick, athletic, long arms and has the best vertical jump on the team; great shooter who used to beat Larry Bird regularly in practice. Problem: he still looks like a deer in the headlights when he's on the court. Fred Jones was the surprise pick of last year's draft, and the only reason most writers didn't skewer the Pacers about this one is that Donnie Walsh has repeatedly proven them wrong. We likely won't find out how good he actually is this year because of lack of playing time.

The Pacers are loaded with young, solid talent. The franchise has built high expectations in the fans, but they still need another star to challenge for an NBA championship. If that star can emerge this year, the Pacers will be one of the favorites to advance to the Finals. If not, then Walsh will need to make that "championship move" next summer.


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