by Conrad Brunner
INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 19, 2002 - The Pacers got bigger, stronger, tougher, more athletic - and even younger. Whether or not they get better as a result is a debate that has only begun and will only be resolved, ultimately, on the court.
One of the biggest trades in franchise history was consummated today when the Pacers sent Jalen Rose, their leading scorer the past 2½ seasons, to Chicago in a package that brought the Bulls' three top scorers - Ron Mercer, Ron Artest and Brad Miller.
In addition to Rose, the Pacers sent point guard Travis Best, rookie shooting guard Norm Richardson and a future second-round pick to the Bulls. To fill the backup point guard vacancy, the Bulls also sent Kevin Ollie to the Pacers to complete the deal.
"We did the trade basically because we think it improves our team; it gives us strength where we had weaknesses," said team president Donnie Walsh.
"We do have some pieces missing and we're trying to fill those holes and we're trying to build a championship team," said coach Isiah Thomas. "In order to do that and be committed to that, sometimes you have to make some tough choices. The choice we made was tough for (Walsh) and I both. That being said, I'm looking forward to coaching Miller, Artest, Mercer and Ollie. I think they hit the spots that we need filled.
"Mercer and Artest are very athletic. They can defend the twos and the threes. Miller coming in can give Jermaine some relief at the five spot. You can play Jermaine and Miller together and you've also got Jeff in there, so it gives us a little tougher team. It's going to take a while before everybody gets used to each other but we're still a work in progress and our future is bright. We're trying to make sure we can stay competitive but keep building toward the championship team we all envision having."
Miller, 26, is expected to eventually supplant Jeff Foster as the starting center, giving the Pacers a 7-1, 261-pounder in the middle, allowing Jermaine O'Neal to play his natural power forward position full-time. That, more than anything else, was the motivating force behind this trade.
"One of our prime things throughout the year is that Jermaine O'Neal needs a bigger presence at center in order to be able to play against power forwards and not centers all the time," Walsh said. "That not only has a toll in each game, when there are mismatches he has to play against, but also it takes its toll over the course of the season."
Artest, 22, is a 6-7, 246-pound guard-forward who already has established a reputation as one of the league's best perimeter defenders and is developing into a promising scorer.
Mercer, 26, is a proven scorer who has been unable to find a long-term home. The Pacers are his fifth team in six seasons. He led the Bulls with a 16.8 scoring average, though his field goal percentage (.399) is a career low. Currently on the injured list with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, Mercer is not expected back for two to three weeks.
Ollie, 30, also is a well-traveled player, as the Pacers are his seventh team in five NBA seasons. He averaged 5.8 points and 3.7 assists in 22.0 minutes in 52 games, including 17 starts, with the Bulls.
Both Miller and Artest are signed through the 2002-03 season. Mercer is under contract through 2003-04. Ollie is a free agent after this season.
Mercer and Ollie were late alterations to the deal, which originally included Chicago's Charles Oakley and the Pacers' Bruno Sundov. But Walsh said the Bulls wanted to keep Oakley as a mentor to young big men Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, as well as to have the salary-cap flexibility created when his contract expires after this season.
"When you do a trade in the middle of the season, you're asking the coach (to do) a lot in putting the team together immediately," Walsh said. "I'm sure we're going to have some growing pains with this. But we didn't do the trade for just this year, we did it for the future. If you look at it from the standpoint of what's on the basketball court, which is obviously the prime mover in all this, it makes sense for us. I also think if you look to what's become more important in the league, and that's the luxury tax and cap and all that, this opens it up in the future for us to be more flexible and to be able to do the things I'm pretty sure we're going to have to do in the future."
Thomas said he planned to move Jonathan Bender into Rose's vacated small forward spot and bring Artest, Miller and Ollie off the bench - at least initially. Miller could be the first of the group to crack the starting lineup.
"Right now I would envision Jonathan playing at the three and keeping some type of chemistry out on the floor," Thomas said. "Depending on how fast Miller can adjust to playing with Jermaine, that will give us the flexibility to bring Jeff off the bench and that would keep us tougher back there. Artest can play behind (Reggie) Miller and also behind Bender.
"I see Mercer playing more minutes than he's probably used to playing at the three spot, and also at the two spot. He played a lot of minutes in Chicago but Reggie right now is playing too many minutes for us. I don't like the idea that we have to play Reggie 37, 38 minutes a night. I think it's probably the most he's ever played in his career. We've definitely got to cut down on his minutes and Mercer gives us an adequate backup to Reggie. You can always have that type of firepower when Reggie goes off the floor."
Though the Pacers (26-27) were 10th in the Eastern Conference at the time of the trade, they're just four games behind first-place Milwaukee in the Central Division. The playoff race is clearly wide open. If the Pacers can survive the inevitable period of adjustment, they could thrive if the elements meld in time for the playoffs.
"It depends on how quickly we can come together as a unit," Thomas said. "In the long run, if we can crystallize quickly, I think it could help us in terms of the playoff push. I watched Charlotte and Milwaukee (Monday) night, Miami's coming on, and the teams are getting bigger, stronger, tougher and healthier. It's going to be a tight race from this point on. Every game's going to be extremely important and teams are going to be very physical going after that sixth, seventh and eighth spot.
"Right now, we're four games out of being in first place, so anything can happen in this short period of time. The team that can come together the quickest and continue to play well is the one that's going to have the best shot of winning in the playoffs."
Rose, 29, blossomed into one of the NBA's most versatile players in his six years with the Pacers, earning the league's Most Improved Player award in 2000. He averaged a team-high 18.5 points, as well as 4.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists, in 53 games with the Pacers this season. He was also the team's highest-paid player (a reported $10.87 million this season, escalating to $15.69 million in 2005-06, the final year of the deal.
Reports were widespread that his name was appearing in trade talks because of a rocky relationship with Thomas - Rose's agent, David Falk, reiterated the claim in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday - but both the coach and team president denied that was a factor in the deal.
"In terms of the relationship he and I had as a player and coach, it was very respectable, very friendly, doors were always open," Thomas said. "However, I was demanding of him just as I was of all my players. The things I thought he could get better at, I voiced that and told him that. It wasn't personal, it was about trying to help him become a better player. I was no different with him than I am with Jeff Foster or Croshere or any of the other guys - even Reggie Miller today. In order for us to be better, you've got to get better. I thought he and I communicated well. I've known Jalen a long time and as I said when this started, and as Donnie said, this is a tough day for he and I both."
Walsh put it more strongly.
"That had nothing to do with this trade," he said. "When you're coaching players, you're going to have those periods where you're pushing the player to go beyond where he might want to go, or can go, and you're going to have those kind of things happen. But Jalen Rose was not traded from here because he didn't fit in or anything like that. Jalen Rose was traded because we wanted to try to make our team better."
Best, 29, averaged 6.9 points and 4.0 assists in 44 games this season but had come on strong of late, averaging 12.1 points in the last seven games. He will become a free agent after this season.
"I hope it works out for Jalen and I think it will," Walsh said. "If you look at this trade, you'll see that Chicago really wanted him and they really need him. I think he can add credibility and his overall game can pull together what they have and what they'll get. I know they know Travis is a good player. I don't know if they know what kind of quality person they're getting. He's in the last year of his contract and I hope this puts him in a better position when he hits free agency."
Though two days remain before Thursday's NBA trading deadline, Walsh gave no indication another move was in the works.
"I won't say I'm done, the same way I won't say anybody's untouchable," he said. "But do I have a trade going? No, I don't."