Though he isn't conceding, there is no question that Donnie Walsh has taken his Pacers out of the running for the Eastern Conference championship.
"We're not rebuilding, we're renovating," Walsh says. That's an interesting way to view a franchise that blew up most of its foundation and left Reggie Miller standing alone, a tall, skinny chimney to remind us of what a nice team the Pacers were.
This is not an attempt to denigrate Walsh, who has never been afraid to take a risk and usually succeeds (I still say Detlef Schrempf for Derrick McKey was a stinker).
But Walsh, frankly, bagged this season when he shipped Dale Davis to Portland for Jermaine O'Neal. Check the facts:
The deal means that a team that came two victories short of an NBA championship in June will go into training camp next month with as many as four new starters. If Rik Smits -- the most tenuous link in the lineup -- comes back for another payday, Indiana at least has a quasi-legitimate center.
Look at the incongruity of Miller, 35, running plays with three high school kids, compromising one-fourth of the roster. There's O'Neal, the valedictorian at age 22 and four years into a long learning curve. There's Al Harrington, 20, and only good enough to log 1,054 minutes in two years as an NBA wage earner. And there's Jonathan Bender, a grizzled veteran of a single season on the bench at age 19.
Saying that "this kid (O'Neal) has a chance to be a special player in the right system," Walsh acknowledges that "when you trade a proven player like Dale, these are all legitimate questions to ask."
One question: Is that system the right system for an all-pro like Miller?
Rick Carlisle, the offensive genius in Larry Bird's scheme, says of Miller, "As good as everyone thinks Reggie is, he is the most underrated player in the game. He can do so many things." But Miller may be an uneasy fit as he starts the final three-year leg of his career.
Around him the roster is in uproar. Jalen Rose moves from small forward to start at point guard, leaving the Pacers without an aggressive weapon who was critical to them last season. Remember, Bird rejected Rose's plea to put him at the point because he understood that Rose would stop looking to score.
Austin Croshere replaces Rose as starting small forward and, though the 6-9 fourth-year player showed well in the playoffs last season, he is now moving up in class with starter minutes.
O'Neal becomes the starting power forward by default with tough, but foul prone, Jeff Foster behind him. And if Smits is finished it's a battle between 39-year-old Sam Perkins and Zan Tabak in the middle. Take that, Pat and Zo.
|O'Neal (top) will get the playing time he wants now.|
Harrington and Bender had better grow up in a hurry. Bird brought Harrington along much of the season and he may contribute, but Bender, for all his talent, is at least a year, away, maybe two. (Let's not forget about last year's controversial Davis trade, Antonio Davis to Toronto for Bender.)
And here's something else to ponder: the Pacers had a $4.3 million trade exception available to them. They allowed that exception to expire last month. Does this suggest that Walsh had no idea he would be dealing Davis or being put in position where he must count on the callow O'Neal? It does to me.
Here is the probable explanation:
Two weeks ago, the Pacers announced a two-year extension for Davis at $9 and $10 million, bringing his average salary for the next five years to $8 million. Those are nice numbers for a guy who barely can average double figure points and rebounds, but Davis was ungrateful and said he would probably want to be traded before his contract expires so he can get even bigger paydays. Walsh was astonished but kept his own counsel.
But the inside word is that the NBA is going to do Davis a backhanded favor. Apparently, the incentive clauses in Davis' extension are being classified as very obtainable. That means the Pacers broke the salary cap laws and the contract is going to be rejected. This leaves Davis with $6.2 million next season, $7 million and then $8 million in 2002-03. At age 34 he will be free to make his own deal.
Walsh must have known this when he made the trade and it could have been an underlying reason to deal a capable player.
Still, this doesn't make the task any easier for Isiah Thomas in his debut as an NBA coach.
Around The League
Pat Riley acknowledges that he flew to California to try and convince J.R. Rider to come play for the Heat. Riley tried to obtain Rider from the Hawks last winter but the two teams could not make a deal that did not have severe cap implications for Atlanta.
The odd thing here is that members of Riley's staff quietly got an uncensored report from a well-placed member of the Hawks' medical team and walked away convinced that the marriage of Riley the martinet and Rider the slacker would never work.
Here a few interesting notes on Rider's agreement with the Lakers. He was 45 minutes late for his own contract signing and only one-third of his $733,000 is guaranteed.
Rider told the media he will be on time because he will stay off the freeways. The Hawks thought that was funny. J.R. couldn't make it to practice or games on time when he was living in the Omni Hotel, about a two-block, indoor walk to the dressing room in Philips Arena.
If you've been riding the NBA rumor-go-round, you know of the alleged trade brewing between Atlanta and New York in the event the Knicks can move Patrick Ewing. But the question of whether the Hawks would deal Dikembe Mutombo for Allan Houston and Marcus Camby (they likely would not) remains moot. Knicks GM Scott Layden has told his peers that Houston and Latrell Sprewell are untouchable. End of story.
You have to love what George Karl and Ernie Grunfeld have done with the Bucks. Knowing they can't stop anyone anyway, they dumped do-little big men and assembled an even more explosive offensive system. Even with a $56 million payroll the Bucks can't be contenders but they will be fun to watch.
Jeffrey Denberg, who covers the NBA for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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