Can Team Survive Artest’s Absence?

by Conrad Brunner

Feb. 20, 2004

Friday, Feb. 20, 2004

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Conrad Brunner
Q. (Ron) Artest being out? Ouch! I think we'll be OK with (Al) Harrington starting for the duration of Artest's absence but my fellow Pacers fans at work think the season is over. They're convinced the Pistons and the Nets will catch us and pass us in the standings and we no longer stand an ice cube's chance in (a very hot place) of coming out of the East. I certainly think we'll miss Ron and his defensive intensity but I feel the others will pick up their games and we'll be OK until "The Man" returns. Do you think we're in serious trouble? (From Sean in Indianapolis)

A. It’s amazing how the Eastern Conference standings completely changed in a 24-hour period, and none of the contenders even played a game. The Pistons acquired Rasheed Wallace, so all of a sudden they’re being measured for rings. The Pacers lost Artest for an undetermined period of time, and all of a sudden they’ve fallen from the peak. This is not to minimize the impact of Artest’s absence. It will hurt the Pacers. He is the best on-the-ball defender in the NBA and, even on nights when his shot isn’t falling, he generally has a positive impact on the game with his presence. But I don’t think, however, the team will be crippled in his absence. There is no position where the Pacers are better equipped to absorb an injury than small forward. Al Harrington is a quality scorer and capable defensive player who would start for most other teams in the NBA, so I don’t worry much about the starting lineup.

The concern is the bench, where someone must step into Harrington’s vacated Sixth Man role. But, again, there appears to be a player ready, willing and able to assume a larger load: Austin Croshere. And Jonathan Bender may also benefit from regular playing time, although his minutes will still be limited to avoid a setback in his rehab. It’s not unusual for a team to respond positively to this kind of adversity, particularly in the short term, and that’s what you can expect from the Pacers.

As for the competition in the East, the Pistons did improve themselves on paper by acquiring Rasheed Wallace, but it remains to be seen how he will affect the team’s chemistry. Odds are, he’ll be on his best behavior the rest of the season. And the Nets are certainly hot now, but they still have a huge gap to close on the Pacers. So don’t panic. There are a lot of knee-jerk reactions flying around at the moment, but they’re meaningless. Take a deep breath and let rationale prevail. Some fans seem to be looking for some sign the Pacers are about to repeat last season’s history. It isn’t going to happen. Will they lose a few games here and there? Yes. Does it mean they’re in the process of falling apart? No. This is a good, tough, disciplined, well-coached, mentally strong team. Artest’s absence will be felt. But it won’t be fatal.