Thursday, January 27, 2005
Trading Artest: Risk and reward Trading Artest: Risk and reward
By Chad Ford
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' expectations at the start of the season were pretty straightforward.
Win an NBA Championship ... or bust.
"The Pistons are the champs and you respect what they have accomplished," Pacers GM Larry Bird told Insider in October. "But we can compete with them. In fact, we can compete with them better than we did last year. To be the champs, you have to beat the champs. I think we've got as good a shot as anyone."
That feeling only swelled when the Pacers traveled to Detroit on Nov. 19 and destroyed the Pistons
on their home floor.
"When we played Detroit up there, we beat them easily," team president Donnie Walsh told Insider. "We did it without two of our starters (Reggie Miller
and Jeff Foster
). I think it was at that point that we felt like we were serious, serious contenders."
But minutes before the final buzzer, disaster struck both teams' seasons. The brawl in Auburn Hills, Mich., will go down as one of the ugliest incidents in the history of the NBA. The Pacers suffered the brunt of the aftershocks, losing Jermaine O'Neal
for 15 games, Stephen Jackson
for 30 games and Ron Artest
for the season.
After seeing their team decimated by huge suspensions in the wake of the incident, the goals of the franchise changed dramatically. Championship aspirations were shelved. The Pacers simply wanted to survive.
"We had this incident, it was terrible for us and the league, and we got the suspensions," Walsh told Insider this week. "Our immediate goal was to survive this and win as many games as we can. We felt if we could stay around .500, we'd really have a shot once guys started coming back."
Mission accomplished. On Wednesday in Boston, Jackson returned to the fold with the Pacers clinging to a 20-19 record and the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference. After the loss to the Celtics, they're just three games behind the Pistons in the Central Division and 4½ games away from a No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
Thursday night, the Pacers play host to the Pistons in their third meeting of the season. Now that O'Neal and Jackson are back, do the Pacers have enough firepower, sans
Artest, to win it all?
If the answer is no, will Walsh and Bird succumb to the urge to trade Artest for a player who might make the difference between an early playoff exit and the NBA Finals?
Despite the loss of Artest, the Pacers have a number of reasons to believe they're still as good as the Pistons and Heat. To begin with, one of the Pacers starters blossomed with O'Neal, Jackson and Artest in street clothes.
Point guard Jamaal Tinsley
has evolved this season from a good basketball player into an all-star caliber point guard. The Pacers signed Tinsley to a six-year, $40 million extension this summer that is beginning to look like a serious steal.
Indiana Pacers Profile
2004-2005 SEASON STATISTICS GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT% 34 17.3 4.4 6.7 .431 .735
Tinsley remains one of the best floor generals in the NBA, but he is no longer a pass-only point guard. He's dramatically improved his outside jumper over the course of the past few years and isn't afraid to use it. Teams can no longer sag on him on the offensive end. His 17.3 ppg average this season is dramatically better than his career-high of 9.6 ppg during his rookie year. His scoring output should decline now that O'Neal and Jackson are back, but he should remain an effective weapon in the Pacers' offensive attack.
Tinsley also has evolved into one of the best defensive point guards in the league. He uses his strength, quick hands and great instincts to shut down opposing point guards. This season, he ranks third in the league in steals. But that's not the total story. As stats guru John Hollinger pointed out in this year's Pro Basketball Forecast, Tinsley's impact goes beyond steals. According to a complicated set of formulas Hollinger has assembled tracking individual defensive matchups, Tinsley led all NBA point guards in defensive efficiency last season. Judging from what we've seen this year, he's doing it again.
"Jamaal has really kept us together during all of this," said Walsh. "He's really grown as a player. He really makes our team run smoothly. I think people really have under rated just how good he really is."
Second, the Pacers have, arguably, the best bench in the East. That's partly why they were able to survive without O'Neal, Jackson and Artest for so long.
"We have a lot of depth," Bird said. "Over the course of an 82-game season, that gets more important to you. Injuries are going to happen. Sometimes it's just a matter of outlasting your opponent."
Their bench has improved. Seldom used before the Motown Melee, reserves Fred Jones
, Austin Croshere
, James Jones
and rookie David Harrison
were thrust into prime-time roles after the suspensions and responded with impressive numbers.
Now that they're back in supporting roles, they have more experience to step up when called upon.
"I think those guys have really grown as basketball players because of this," Walsh said. "In the past, we've always believed we had a deep bench, but they weren't really tested. Now that they've been out there, and won games for us, I think Rick [Carlisle] knows that he can lean on them now."
Third, the Pacers might be the most motivated team in the league right now.
The Pacers have had to use a ragtag mix to remain competitive.
Jackson and O'Neal are on fire about what happened and can't wait to take it out on their opponents ... on the court. "I'm so happy I'm back I want to scream," Jackson said Tuesday. "We've got a sense of urgency right now. We want to get some momentum going now, and then be rolling when we come out of the All-Star break."
Jackson says he has a lot of emotions he's ready to release after sitting at home and watching his team struggle without him.
"That sucked," he said. "Watching my teammates win and lose those close games and not be a part of it was terrible. Sitting in that hotel room and knowing I could have made one play to help determine the outcome, or at least pat somebody on the butt, that really destroyed me."
Jackson is now vowing to not only lift the offense, but also to take over Artest's role as the team's defensive leader.
"If anybody has to play on both ends of the court, it's me," he said. "Not having our defensive stopper in Ron, I'm willing to take on that challenge. I did it in San Antonio and I did it in Atlanta. I'm willing to do it here. I'm going to try to do everything on the court."
Jackson's debut in Boston on Wednesday night was a mixed bag. He scored 17 points but shot just 6-for-18 from the field in a loss to the Celtics. Jackson's legs gave out in the third quarter, and he missed 12 of his last 15 shots. Obviously, it's going to take a while for him to get his wind back, but in the long run, his return will mean a lot to Indiana.
Finally, the Pacers' stiffest competition, the Pistons and Heat
, have their fair share of weaknesses.
The Pistons have not been playing with the competitive fire they did last year. They've been in some sort of malaise all season and seem to be as snakebit as the Pacers were about the brawl. Over the past few weeks, head coach Larry Brown
has been complaining about the team's effort, and just this weekend, Ben Wallace
, the poster child for effort in the league, shot back at Brown, telling him to lay off.
While the addition of Carlos Arroyo
should bolster the Pistons' backcourt, the team still has enough depth issues to be vulnerable. If they catch lightning in a bottle again this spring, they probably will be too tough for the Pacers to beat. But if the Pistons continue to tread water, the Pacers can take them even without Artest.
The Heat got off to a fantastic start but have had their own share of problems lately. While Shaquille O'Neal
and Dwyane Wade
might be more dominant than any player on either the Pistons' or Pacers' roster, the rest of the team has serious issues.
After a great start, Damon Jones
has hit a serious wall. Eddie Jones
has been up and down all season. Udonis Haslem
has played well, but he's a role player. The fact the Heat signed Qyntel Woods
on Wednesday shows you how desperate they are. The bottom line is that to succeed in the playoffs, the Heat probably need to add a player or two, and stay injury-free.
With all of that said, the Pacers remain realistic about the speed bumps they now face if they're going to win a title.
"The suspension changed everything," Walsh said. "We'll be a good team. Ronnie is a very good player. You can't say we're as good without him as with him."
"Still, we'll be competitive. Real competitive."
Pistons president Joe Dumars agrees.
"I still think the Pacers are a force to be reckoned with," Dumars told Insider. "Stephen Jackson
and Jermaine O'Neal give them enough power to compete with anyone in the league."
While the Pacers still are clearly in the playoff hunt, there are as many questions as there are answers.
Walsh (center) and Bird (right) want to keep Artest in Pacers' colors -- for now.
Without Artest to shut down the opponents' best player, can the Pacers be as good defensively as they need to be? Artest was also their second-most important offensive player. Can Jackson, Tinsley and the bench players pick up the slack?
Can the Pacers come together in the middle of the season? Despite the passion, it's not as easy as it seems.
Moreover, do those question marks ever tempt the Pacers to trade Artest for a player who could immediately improve their chances of winning a title this season?
"We're not going to do it," Walsh said. "Not at the trade deadline, anyway."
"We're not going to panic. If you look toward where this team will go, ... sooner or later all of our players are coming back including Ronnie. The average age of our team is 25 years old, and all of our key players are on long-term contracts. We have to keep that in mind."
The Pacers are certainly inclined to be patient. But the truth is, the lack of quality offers for Artest has made that stance an easy one to adopt.
Walsh's position on the topic softens a bit when the question is posed a different way. What if someone offered the Pacers a really good player for Artest?
"If we got offered a very, very good player, maybe that would be different," Walsh said. "A team would have to offer us a top 10 to 15 player for us to trade Ron. We're not getting those type of offers."
The Pacers probably won't. Most of the teams that were interested in Artest wanted him on the cheap, or wanted to stick the Pacers with a big contract in return.
But are the Pacers demands unrealistic? No one disputes Artest's talent. But he has proven – on multiple occasions – that he lacks judgment. His inability to control himself threw a serious monkey wrench into the Pacers' season. Can they really trust him to come back next season and be a different person?
To put it more succinctly, aren't the Pacers worried Artest could burn them again?
"You can't say 'no' to that question," Walsh told Insider. "Ronnie's had some incidents. I believe he's made improvements. He's really tried to stay out of trouble the last year. He knows now that he can't do anything more or it's over.
“ I also don't think there is a team in the league that wouldn't be frightened by all of the other stuff that Artest brings to the table. The Pacers are really damned if they do, damned if they don't. ”
— A Western Conference executive on the Pacers' debate regarding Ron Artest
"At the same time, we all have to acknowledge that he's going to be looked at and baited, so we have to look at it."
If that sounds like a lukewarm endorsement of Artest, it isn't meant to be. Everyone in the organization seems to have a genuine affection for him.
But the Pacers know there are serious risks involved with keeping Artest. They also know letting him leave without proper compensation might alter dramatically the team's chances to win a title. Balancing the two competing concerns might be the most difficult task Walsh and Bird endure.
One Western Conference executive, who didn't want to be named, empathizes.
"I'm not sure what I'd do in their situation. I don't think there is a team in the league that doesn't want what Artest brings to the basketball court," the executive said. "I also don't think there is a team in the league that wouldn't be frightened by all of the other stuff that Artest brings to the table. The Pacers are really damned if they do, damned if they don't."
The Pacers' window is pretty large. They're young, and their players keep getting better. But the East is getting better, too.
Miami is better. The Cavaliers
are getting a lot better. The Magic
are improved. Generally, this season is a down year in the East. Soon, though, top-to-bottom competition is going to get much tougher.
Do you risk it all, right now, for a better chance to win it all? Or are you patient, and trust that Artest finally has learned his lesson?
The Pacers have until Feb. 24, the trading deadline, to make up their minds. Given the stellar track record of that Pacers front office, it will be tough to second-guess them no matter what they decide.