O’Neal, Carlisle Expect Answers Soon
In describing an emotional conversation he had with Rick Carlisle after the regular-season finale, Jermaine O'Neal neatly, perhaps inadvertently, summarized the current state of the Pacers.
"It was a situation where we were talking and we both kind of realized one of us may not be here next year, or both of us may not be here next year, or both of us may be here next year," O'Neal said. "We just really didn't know."
And won't for at least a few days. In the meantime, what we have are two lengthy, heartfelt and frank year-end press conferences from the two principle characters in the offseason drama, one from Carlisle after Wednesday's 98-95 loss to the Wizards, and one from O'Neal the day after.
Though neither said it in so many words, the tone of both was more farewell than wait-till-next-year.
The only news revealed was O'Neal's admission Thursday he would need minor surgery next week to address torn cartilage in his left knee, and that he played with the problem the final two months of the season. Recovery time isn't expected to exceed six weeks.
Beyond that, the major question brought only hints in response. Does O'Neal expect, or want, to be traded?
Though he said, "obviously, my first choice would be to stay here," O'Neal said he wanted to meet with franchise CEO & President Donnie Walsh and team President Larry Bird next week to determine the direction of the team before taking a firm stance on his future. The implication was if Walsh and Bird decide to re-tool around younger players and take a longer-term view, O'Neal would prefer to move on.
"They understand the deficiencies that we have on this team," O'Neal said. "We have a lot of good young players but my question really is, are we going that route? Because we have more younger players than veteran players. You're going to have a lot of bumps and bruises when you have that. Guys have to learn on the fly. Danny Granger's coming off the bench and all of a sudden he's thrown into the No. 2 spot, and that's a difficult situation for him. …
"If we're going the route where we want to develop younger guys, then I love what this city has done for me and my family but it gets to a point where I would rather have them go get younger pieces to play together. Ultimately, to me, I'm at the point in my career where I want to win. After you deal with a lot of situations, you want to see that ultimate prize, and that's winning a championship."
Though O'Neal has an opt-out clause after next season that would allow him to void the final two years of his contract to become a free agent in 2008-09, he said he wouldn't use that as leverage to force a deal.
"I'm never going to put this organization in a bad situation," he said. "Worst-case scenario, if I'm going somewhere else, we're going to work together to get a deal that's beneficial to both parties. It's not Jermaine putting the team in a tough situation where they're forced to send me somewhere for pieces they don't want. That's something we'll talk about when it's time. First, I want to see what direction this team is going in."
He also praised Carlisle's work but stopped just short of championing him as the right coach for the team.
"I think Rick has done a great job with the hand that's been dealt to him," O'Neal said. "We've been dealt some bad hands, for whatever reason, and he's continued to go through with his gameplan."
Asked if he wanted Carlisle to return, however, O'Neal said, "I don't really want to comment about that. I like Rick. But there's so many other scenarios that need to be addressed before we start talking about (that). I'm pretty sure if you asked Rick he would say the same thing because he understands the scenario. This organization's at a point where they have to make some decisions. They're tough decisions but, at the end of the day, we'll all understand whatever decision is made by the organization."
The normally stoic Carlisle was clearly emotional in the immediate aftermath of a 35-47 season, the worst of his head coaching career and the Pacers' worst since a 28-54 mark in 1988-89. Though he has one year remaining on his contract, his future has been the subject of widespread speculation because of the team's sudden and rapid decline; the Pacers went 6-23 in their final 29 games to fall from fifth in the East out of the playoffs entirely for the first time in 10 years.
"I think we all have felt like our heads have been in a blender all year with one thing after the other," Carlisle said. "But these guys hung in and battled and I'm very appreciative of that. It's always tough when it ends."
Carlisle said he felt a stronger emotional attachment to this team than any of his previous four with the Pacers, which made the frustrating finish that much more difficult to accept.
"It's a tough way to end but, for whatever reason, my feelings of appreciation for this team are stronger than any team I've been with and I can't explain that, I really can't, because it doesn't really make sense," he said. "But that's just the way I feel. And I think a lot of the struggles this year will manifest in better days for these players and this franchise down the line."
When asked about his future, Carlisle chose instead to reflect on his past with the Pacers, which included three years (1997-2000) as the offensive coordinator while Bird was head coach.
"I'm really not going to comment on anything right now other than to say the four years here have been great years," he said. "This is seven out of the last 10 years I've worked for this franchise. Some very, very intense times, some great things accomplished, some severe disappointments along the way, but the all-time best experience I've had in basketball has been in this state, in this city, with this franchise and with these players. And so for that, I'm very thankful to Donnie and Larry and the Simons and our fan base.
"When you get a situation where you go through the brawl year and your attendance goes up by 500 that year, that's saying you're in a special place. But as far as my future, I'm going to take some time and kind of digest everything that's happened. I'll sit down with Larry and Donnie next week sometime and we'll discuss what's best for the franchise and what's best for the future of everyone. At that time, we'll figure things out."
Both expect the lingering questions about their figures to be answered relatively soon. Walsh and Bird had exit interviews with several players today, before leaving for the NBA Board of Governor's meetings in New York, where they'll be through the weekend. Upon returning to Indianapolis, those individual meetings will resume.
"We expect those meetings to conclude early next week," Walsh said in a statement issued Wednesday, "and at that time we will meet with the media to make announcements regarding the direction of the team."
That statement seemed to confirm O'Neal's belief his situation would be addressed in the early phases of the seasons.
"I do understand there's a time period for every team to make moves and obviously the later you get in the summer, the harder it is to make a move," he said. "If it's a move those guys want to make, it's going to be made early."