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NBA Longshot to Win the Title

   by ASA - 10/16/2006

The Pacers have been a team severely bitten by the injury bug and surrounded by turmoil the last two seasons, leaving a dark cloud over the franchise. But 2006 brings a whole new season, with the turmoil (Ron Artest) now in Sacramento and the injury bug hopefully residing somewhere other than Indianapolis. The Pacers boast one of the deepest and most versatile rosters in the East, and the 40-1 odds drastically higher than last years number of 12-1, make this team a great opportunity to turn a small risk into a big reward.

Indiana has been one of the top defensive squads in the league sine Rick Carlisle took over at head coach prior to the 2003 season. The Pacers have finished third, third and fifth in the league in points allowed in the three years under Carlisle. For the first time, though, Carlisle has the offensive firepower to match the defensive intensity. Indiana goes two-deep at each position with each player capable of playing multiple positions, giving Carlisle the option to go small or big without losing much scoring.

The Pacers are led by the young, big and athletic starting frontline of Jermaine O’Neal, Al Harrington and Danny Granger. O’Neal and Harrington, for as long as it seems they’ve been around, are still just 28 and 26, respectively, and entering their primes with years of experience on their sides. Granger was a second-team All-Rookie selection last year and will only improve on his production with a year under his belt. Rounding out the starting five is point guard Jamaal Tinsley and gun packin 2-guard Stephen Jackson. Tinsley, as evidenced by his 2004 averages of 15 points, six assists and two steals, has proven himself as a quality starter if he can stay healthy. Jackson is the wild card. If he can keep his occasional psychotic breaks to a minimum (and stay out of jail), he provides the long-range threat needed to spread the defense for O’Neal on the inside.

The bench features new Pacer Marquis Daniels as a potential sixth man of the year candidate. Daniels is the most flexible player on the team as he showed the ability to play the point, shooting guard or small forward spots during his time at Dallas. Sarunas Jasikevicius is a viable backup option should Tinsley get hurt and center Jeff Foster, who averaged 17.4 rebounds per 48 minutes last year, is a rebounding machine. Throw in locker room glue-guy Darrell Armstrong and high-flying rookies James White and Shawne Williams, and the Pacers have one of the top second-tiers in the NBA.

The Eastern Conference is wide open this year with no clear-cut choice to take the conference. The Heat, outside of Dwyane Wade, is an old team and it’s always tough to repeat. The Pistons lost their heart and soul with Ben Wallace defecting to Chicago. The Bulls, despite the presence of Wallace, don’t have the offense to match the defense. The Nets have no bench. And LeBron James just doesn’t have the support to lead the Cavs to the finals. This leaves the Pacers, who have a nice mix of veterans in their primes, young guns looking to leave their mark and a no-nonsense head coach that can guide the team through the season.

Despite the injuries and the Artest distraction, Indiana still managed to secure the sixth seed in the playoffs last year. It could’ve finished a lot higher in the standings but fell victim to some unfortunate luck. The Pacers went just 8-22 in games decided by five points or less but that mark should easily flip-flop with a healthy roster in place. The karma gods are on Indiana’s side as all the bad luck of the last two years is bound to be replaced with some good fortune this season. The Eastern Conference is wide open and Miami proved last year that the Western Conference champion can be beaten. Combine the above factors with a deep, healthy Indiana roster, and you could be looking at the 2006-07 NBA Champions.

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