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3 Indiana Pacers A young team will lean on a 22-year-old swingman with something to prove--and could go deep into the playoffs or cost the coach his job

Swingman Ron Artest was driving his Blazer from his home outside
Indianapolis to the Pacers' training camp in Cincinnati when he
had an epiphany: The NBA ought to assign someone to watch the
defense being played in every game. And just why would this be a
good idea? "That way, when they hand out all the awards, the
best defensive player wouldn't keep getting overlooked," Artest
says. "I mean, I wasn't even second team all-defensive. That
upsets me."

Artest might be tone deaf to subtlety, but he has a point. Last
season he ranked second in the league in steals (2.56 per game)
and rebounded well for a perimeter player (4.9). Plus, his
on-the-ball D was exceptional. Just ask him. "I stopped all sorts
of players, night-in, night-out," says Artest, who missed most of
the preseason recovering from surgery on his left pinkie. "People
don't score on me because a lot of times they don't even get a
shot off."

Even if award voters overlook Artest, he is held in high regard
by his peers--no less than Michael Jordan calls him "one of my
favorite players." The fact that Artest's emotions are more raw
than carpaccio sits fine with coach Isiah Thomas. "I want that
intensity," Thomas says. "Ron's as committed as any player I've
ever seen, and his work ethic is off the charts. There's no
hidden agenda. He just says, 'I'm coming to play, and I'm
kicking your ass.' And that's every night."

Acquired in the middle of last season from Chicago in the Jalen
Rose trade, Artest, 22, is a pivotal figure in the Pacers'
transition from a gerontocracy to a neonatal brigade. When
Indiana made the Finals in 2000, the majority of the players
were north of 30; this year's team will be among the youngest in
NBA history. The lone rookie, 23-year-old guard Fred Jones from
Oregon, is older than five Pacers. "There have been adjustments,
no doubt," says Reggie Miller, who turned 37 in August, "but
they're a good bunch of guys, and they keep me plugging along."

Indiana deserves credit for rebuilding without making a detour
through Lotteryville. Still, this callow group needs to
coalesce, something that never occurred last season. The Pacers
could set the pace in the conference; they could also cost
Thomas his job. The disarmingly candid defensive stopper
predicts the former scenario. "Man, are we going to be good,"
says Artest. "If we don't win the East, that will be more
disappointing than if I don't make first-team all-defense."
--L. Jon Wertheim

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN TRYING TO GET HIS Known for his volatility and relentless effort, Artest plans to snatch a spot on the all-defensive team.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN OLD SCHOOL On a team whose lone rookie is older than five players, a veteran hand like Miller's is a necessity.

Reggie Miller can become the first player to lead the NBA in free
throw shooting three straight times since Rick Barry (1977-78 to

an opposing team's scout sizes up the Pacers

"If I had to rank Isiah Thomas with the other 28 coaches in the
league, I'd put him in the 14-to-20 range. He communicates well,
he understands the game, and his team doesn't make glaring
mistakes. He's learning on the job, just like his players....
Isiah's talking about putting in a sophisticated offense drawn
from the triangle, John Wooden's high post and Bob Knight's
motion. It's a good idea to make players dependent on each
other, but that might be too much for these young guys to
handle.... My feeling is that they'll be best when they're
pushing the ball. Jamaal Tinsley makes too many turnovers in the
setup game.... Jonathan Bender is starting to turn the corner.
There aren't many big men who handle the ball better, which is
why Isiah is asking him to initiate the offense. He's an
unselfish 7-foot swingman who can guard smaller, quicker players
because he can afford to give them room--if they try to step
back and shoot over him, he can close quickly to block shots....
Al Harrington looks pretty good after undergoing major knee
surgery last January. He's important for them, he plays with a
lot of enthusiasm and he looks ready to have a breakout year....
Jermaine O'Neal doesn't go strong to the basket. Most of his
moves are going away to the baseline.... Having Jeff Foster
coming off the bench at the two big spots is a luxury. He's
extremely active and doesn't force anything.... I like Ron
Artest, though I don't buy into the talk that he's a budding
Scottie Pippen. He doesn't have Pippen's athleticism and ball
handling ability. Pippen was a gazelle,while Artest is more
physical.... Let's not forget Reggie Miller, who at 37 is still
one of the most productive guys on their team. You see some
stars continue to play even as their skills are deteriorating,
but I don't think you'll see that with Miller--too much pride."


Tough D

Fair D

No D

2001-02 record: 42-40 (tied for third in Central)
Points scored: 96.8 (9th) Points allowed: 96.5 (18th)
Coach: Isiah Thomas (third season with Pacers)


SF Ron Artest 75 13.2 ppg 4.9 rpg 2.3 apg 2.56 spg 42.3 FG%
PF Jermaine O'Neal 23 19.0 ppg 10.5 rpg 1.6 apg 2.31 bpg 47.9 FG%
C Brad Miller 105 13.6 ppg 8.2 rpg 2.0 apg 1.00 spg 49.9 FG%
SG Reggie Miller 3 16.5 ppg 3.2 apg 1.11 spg 45.3 FG% 40.6 3FG%
PG Jamaal Tinsley 66 9.4 ppg 3.7 rpg 8.1 apg 1.73 spg 38.0 FG%


F Al Harrington 104 13.1 ppg 6.3 rpg 1.2 apg 0.93 spg 47.5 FG%
F Ron Mercer 109 13.9 ppg 3.4 rpg 2.4 apg 0.60 spg 39.7 FG%
F Jonathan Bender 192 7.4 ppg 3.1 rpg 0.8 apg 43.0 FG% 36.0 3FG%
F-C Jeff Foster 221 5.7 ppg 6.8 rpg 0.9 apg 0.46 bpg 44.9 FG%
G Erick
Strickland[1] 268 7.7 ppg 2.7 rpg 2.3 apg 38.9 FG% 38.5 3FG%

[1] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 92)