Once upon a time they were here, in this city, in this building, once upon a time it was at their fingertips, a championship, a NBA title. The Indiana Pacers had the lead in the first quarter of game six. They had the lead in the second quarter of game six. They had the lead in the third quarter of game six. The truth of it is you don’t get this far without dedication and commitment, without unexpected contributions. Dale Davis was unstoppable, 8-10, twenty points. Austin Croshere, back in his hometown, put in 16 off the bench. But in the fourth quarter it was just too much Shaq, too much of his quickness and dominance and skill. He ended up with 41 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks in his first NBA title. The Pacers would not get back to the NBA Finals again.
It is often written by poets how life is nothing more than a circle. The year of Indiana’s broken heartedness, Paul George was a child who knew nothing of the Pacers deep sorrow or their aging stars or how crushing it was to get this far and lose in the Finals when they were so close to forcing a game seven. Paul George was an ordinary ten year old who played basketball in the park and lived in Palmdale, California, He would become a Clippers fan, a Kobe lover but a Clippers fan. He would not be psychic. So, of course he could not know that the team that lost to the Los Angeles Lakers that Monday night in June, the team whose heart felt like it was stabbed in the center, would be the same team that would select him in the lottery ten years later. The same team he would star for and whose championship hopes rest upon him.
But that was a decade away. First things first. You lose in the Finals- you need to make changes only because it is hard to keep up a pace of excellence. After winning 56 games and losing in the NBA Finals the Pacers turned over their coaching reins to Isiah Thomas. The next year they were a .500 team, they had solid defense but not much offense. This was the last year Reggie Miller would score 18 points a game. Rick Smits retired and the Pacers traded for Jermaine O’Neal. It led to 41 wins and the Pacers faced Allen Iverson in the first round of the playoffs. Game 1 was an unremarkable game for Allen, 16 points and the Pacers won on the road. Reggie Miller had a spectacular performance in game two. 41 points on 60% shooting, 60% from three. But Allen Iverson had 45 points; the Pacers lost by 18. They would lose the series in four games. That year the Pacers had a second round draft pick and selected Jamison Brewer. Jamison had a boring career. He played in the NBA then went to Europe.
The next year the Pacers traded Jalen Rose. They added Metta World Peace and Brad Miller. They won 42 games that year and lost in the first round to the Nets and Jason Kidd who would go on to the Finals. The Pacers drafted Fred Jones out of Oregon with the 14th pick, needing offense. He wasn’t the answer. He played for five NBA teams before ending his career in China. And so it was, the Pacers being good enough to be in the playoffs but selecting the wrong players in the draft. In 2002-03 they won 48 games but lost to the Celtics in the first round. They drafted James Jones with the 49th pick. He has played for a variety of teams and is now with the Heat.
They changed the coach and that made a difference. Rick Carlisle, the former Celtic and NBA champion, the former Coach of the Year (Pistons) guided the Pacers to 61 games and he faced his old team in the Eastern Conference Finals. But Reggie was no longer a reliable scorer. He shot 14% in game one, 38% in game two, 25% in game three. The Pistons, coached by Larry Brown, were a defensive juggernaut. The Pacers never scored more than 85 points in a game. They scored 65 points twice and 63 points once. Subsequently they lost in six. The Pacers drafted David Harrison with the 29th pick. In a familiar story, he played for the Pacers for four years before finishing his career in China. The next year the Pacers weren’t as good, winning 44 games and losing to the Pistons again, but they drafted Danny Granger with the 17th pick. He was their best draft pick in eighteen years. He was an All Star five years after being drafted.
The next few years were unforgettable, losing records, mediocre teams. Reggie Miller retired. The Pacers drafted Shawne Williams, Jerryd Bayliss and Tyler Hansborough in successive years. They added Roy Hibbert.
And then in 2010, the kid from Palmdale was all grown up. He came into the draft with the same clichés as most teenagers: an upside but flaws, an inconsistent perimeter player from Fresno State, incredible wingspan but streaky shooter. The year the Pacers drafted Paul George they drafted Lance Stephenson, a troubled but talented player from Cincinnati, in the second round. The next year they drafted and then traded Kawhi Leonard for George Hill. That December they signed David West as a free agent. The Pacers also cleaned house. Of the 2010 roster the Pacers took into the lottery only two players are still with the team, Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert. Six players are no longer in the league, seven players are with other teams.
And so the message of how they Pacers got here is this: the draft lottery is not close to its mythology in that it is not a savior. It does not bestow wealth upon the poor nor is it the end of panic. Regardless of the era, sports never changes. It is impossible for the eye, much less the brain, to predict what sort of player a nineteen old can become. Jerry West may have indeed said after his pre-draft workout that Kobe Bryant was going to be one of the best players in NBA history. But, really, he was just guessing. Bob Bass, the general manager of the Charlotte Hornets, was more succinct about his reasons to trade Bryant on draft day. “There had never been a high school player come into the league that did not play in the front court. Secondly, twelve other teams passed on him. 12 other teams said I don’t want him.” And the Pacers were one. They could have drafted Kobe. They had the 10th pick that year and drafted Eric Dampier.
We wait for talent to mature and develop or we wait for talent to mature and fail. Sixty percent of NBA players matter on some level but only ten fall within the standards of greatness, the sort of players that face suffering and overcome it, the ones you can depend on. They play hurt. They play to win. They overwhelm with their talent. The rest of the league- well some players are very good, some are mediocre. They Pacers drafted Paul George and were lucky. They also drafted Fred Jones.
It is not particularly complicated: you start at the beginning, you don’t cheat the steps. You do not ask the wrong questions. You do not ask can a lottery player change everything. You ask will he? Will he change everything? Will he be unselfish and desperate to improve? Will he sacrifice enough of himself, demand enough of himself to reach unparalleled heights? Will he avoid the sort of injuries that turn promising players into he-could-have-been-so-and-so-had-he-not…(fill in the blank). Will he be developed into a system under a quality coach and a competent general manager? Will he stay in the city that drafted him, not because he is loyal but because he wants to deliver a championship, he really wants to be there?
Or will he…
Leave during free agency? Will he have maturity problems? Will he have recurring injuries and a compromised body that reduces him to a shell of what he could have been or maybe he just isn’t talented enough or good enough. Will he hate to practice or hate living on the road or hate his coach or his family is demanding too much of his money. Will he use criticism as a motivator or will he use criticism as a crutch? Will this be a bad dream coming true, the consequence of damaged organizations perpetuating their own falsehood, that subtraction means addition, less is more, failure is success.
The NBA is a people business. You are made or you are broken by the people you believe in. The Pacers believed in Jamison Brewer and James Jones and David Harrison and Shawne Williams. They did not believe in Kobe Bryant. But life is not fair, not in the NBA, not anywhere, mistakes happen. Thirteen years have passed since the Pacers lost to the Lakers that Monday night in June, when Shaq had 41 points and 12 rebounds. It has led them here, to Paul George, the Palmdale kid all grown up. They got lucky with the 10th pick in 2010. The players drafted before him- John Wall, Evan Turner, Derrick Favors, Wesley Johnson, Demarcus Cousins, Ekpe Udoh, Greg Monroe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gordon Hayward- have not been past the first round in the playoffs, if they have gotten there at all. Perhaps it says something about how hard it is to predict NBA success, that no one really knows. Or perhaps it is just the law of averages, eventually the Pacers were going to strike gold. They selected a player who wanted to be great and he worked hard at it. Now they are contenders, perhaps the champions come June.