Sports Business

SPORTS Bill Benner: Is blowing up Pacers roster a risk worth taking?

April 17, 2006

On the last day of the regular season, many professional teams schedule "fan appreciation" ceremonies.

Judging by the numbers of empty seats in Conseco Fieldhouse, the Indiana Pacers might hold "fan depreciation" night April 19 when the regular season comes to a merciful conclusion.

The paying customers, as is their wont, are voting with their feet. Time to spend their evenings at home, or outdoors, enjoying the benefits of daylight-saving time (blame it on Mitch!), rather than witnessing another dark performance.

You can almost hear the Pacer faithful breathing a heavy sigh that says, "OK, enough already."

Not in memory has a Pacer team failed to hit its mark by such a Mike Vanderjagt-wide margin. Not in memory has a Pacer team played more often with less heart, intelligence, passion, togetherness and tenacity.

Yes, before the Simon brothers' ownership and Donnie Walsh's leadership, there were some pretty miserable Pacers teams, as anyone old enough to recall the curtains hiding those empty orange seats in Market Square Arena will attest. But those teams-gutted by the ravages of the lopsided ABANBA merger, poorly guided by absentee ownership and decimated by injuries (Clark Kellogg, Steve Stipanovich) couldn't help themselves.

This team, however, has been an embarrassment to the franchise, and to the legacy of those-in particular, Reggie Miller-who made the blue and gold such a source of community pride.

Yes, injuries have played a role and then there is/was the whole sorry Ron Artest episode. But those are no excuses for the Pacers' multiple lapses against teams with far less talent.

What we have, folks, is the team from Oz, with Tin Men who easily break and Cowardly Lions who can't back up their roar.

Yes, the season could last a few more days ... or weeks, the way the NBA draws out the first round of playoffs. As of this writing, the Pacers are still alive for a postseason berth, but that's only by the grace of Eastern Conference mediocrity.

Making the playoffs would keep a streak alive-they've made the postseason eight straight years and 15 of the last 16-but it would be a shallow achievement.

If the season ends before Race Day-and we're talking about the Kentucky Derby, not the Indianapolis 500-no one will lose much sleep.

Coach Rick Carlisle deserves his share of culpability, although it's difficult to blame a man for failing to light a fire when he's been handed wet matches. Team President Larry Bird-and I'm guessing this would be the most disappointing team he's been associated with ever, including Springs Valley Junior High-already has offered a mea culpa and is vowing to make things right. But how soon and how possible will that be?

The easiest thing to say is that it's time to clean house, and to begin by dumping Jermaine O'Neal, Stephen Jackson and Jamal Tinsley. That's the kind of simpleton solution often voiced on sports talk radio.

But if/when the yard sale begins, will we discover that one team's trash really is another team's treasure? Sure, in Jermaine O'Neal, the Pacers have hitched their wagon to a show horse, not the thoroughbred you would hope $126 million of the Simons' money would buy. But do you get a fivetime all-star in return? Yes, if you were to make a commemorative coin of Jamal Tinsley, he would be the plug nickel. But you think other teams don't see that?

And do you deal a scorer, Stephen Jackson, if you risk losing another scorer, Peja Stojakovic, to free agency? Under ordinary circumstances, keeping Stojakovic would be a no-brainer. But NBA free agency is anything but an ordinary circumstance and by the time other teams throw enough of that Monopoly money at a guy who-gasp!-can actually make jump shots, you wonder if the Pacers can possibly be a suitor. Besides, if you're Stojakovic, who could be signing his last contract, might you not want to cast your lot with an up-and-coming team?

Who is sure to return? No one, really, although the two young-'uns, Danny Granger and David Harrison, are worth keeping, assuming they haven't been too tainted by example. You would think the Pacers would desire to keep the hard-working Jeff Foster around and hope that Sarunas Jasikevicius can find a role that supports Bird's investment in him.

Short of that, blow the team up? Not saying I disagree. Just beware of the collateral damage.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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