Forum Spin Doctor
INDIANAPOLIS - This was supposed to be the season the Indiana Pacers left their worries behind, yet they begin the season with lingering concerns.
The Palace brawl is two years behind them. Ron Artest is gone. Fresh faces and a new uptempo style mark the squad, which promoted its new attitude in an ad campaign designed to draw back fans.
Instead, the Pacers enter the regular season opener against Charlotte on Wednesday night nagged by injuries and the fallout from an Oct. 6 strip club fight that has guard Stephen Jackson facing a felony charge in Indiana and possible jail time in Michigan for a brawl-related probation violation.
Even before the recent problems, there were doubts about how the Pacers would mesh and if they could make it through a season without a major injury. Both forward Jermaine O'Neal and point guard Jamaal Tinsley missed more than 30 games last season, and both missed action in the preseason.
Most publications picked the Pacers to finish fourth in the five-team Central Division, and the Pacers are fine with being in the unfamiliar position of underdogs.
"I personally feel like we're going to be a lot better than people think," O'Neal said. "When the national light isn't on you, it's that much easier to make your way in the standings. We're going to be right there. We don't care about the national spotlight because the last couple of years, we've been picked to come out of the East and we haven't won it."
The Pacers brought 12 new players to training camp and used free agency to add Marquis Daniels, an athletic swingman, and reacquire Al Harrington to lead the change to a faster style of play.
There's a new camaraderie, O'Neal says.
"This is the first year that when guys get cut, it's a tough time," he said. "People felt bad because we've grown that kind of friendship in the locker room."
The new style is ideal for O'Neal, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound power forward who relies on agility more than brawn.
"Everybody thinks that I want to come down and get the ball in the low post and come down and be the guy," he said. "That's not how we're built. We're built to get up and down, move the ball, get touches, and that's how I think we can be most successful."
O'Neal averaged 20.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game but missed 31 games last season, including 24 due to a torn left groin. He missed two preseason games with what the team called a hamstring injury, but he said there's nothing to worry about.
"People are putting a lot on the hamstring," he said. "It was never even a hamstring, it was an issue right below the surface of the skin. It wasn't that much."
The Pacers hope to get a boost from Harrington, who spent the first six years of his career with Indiana before playing the past two in Atlanta. He averaged 17 points and shot 47 percent from the field in Indiana's first six preseason games.
The team's success, however, could hinge largely on Tinsley. Once considered an elite point guard, he missed 40 regular-season games last season and 42 two seasons ago. He averaged six assists and two turnovers in his first five preseason games, and the Pacers say they need him to be healthy to reach their potential.
Coach Rick Carlisle is happy with what he's seen from Tinsley so far.
"He's playing great," Carlisle said. "He's got a very positive sort of vibe to his game and it's been fun to watch. I know that guys have enjoyed playing with him."
The Pacers also expect boosts from forward Danny Granger, who made the all-rookie second team last season, and rookie Shawne Williams.
Jackson has played well in the preseason, but he faces a Nov. 13 probation violation hearing in Michigan that could lead to jail time because of the charges from the club fight in Indianapolis. If he is unavailable, the Pacers expect Daniels to be ready to step in.
Daniels was the first free agent the team picked up in the offseason, and he comes off an NBA Finals appearance with Dallas.
The Pacers have struggled with turnovers during the preseason while adjusting to the new style. Carlisle was unhappy with the 31 miscues in a loss to Charlotte on Tuesday.
"Offensively, we've had some struggles, but I'm not going to get dismayed about those things as long as we continue to make progress," he said.
"We know that this is a process. You don't change your whole style of play in one training camp - it's going to take time. I like a lot of the things we're doing and some things need to get better. We'll get there."