1998 or 2000? What is the Best Pacers Team in NBA Franchise History?
The Pacers have had but a single team reach the NBA Finals, the one that lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in 2000. Simple logic, then, would seem to identify it as the best in the franchise's NBA history.
Simple logic, however, tends to ignore the nuances of a story.
The recent documentary on the Chicago Bulls' 1998 championship team, "The Last Dance," served the dual purpose of resurrecting the memory of the Pacers team from that season — at least for their fans. It pushed the Bulls to the absolute limit in the Eastern Conference finals, jumping to a 20-8 lead in Game 7 at the United Center before missed free throws and rebounds cost them a trip to the Finals.
That Pacers team earned the sincere respect of Chicago coach Phil Jackson and his players. Jackson opened his postgame press conference by paying tribute to the Pacers. A relieved Jordan, recorded in the locker room following the game, said, "That's the hardest we've worked in 13 years." And Scottie Pippen put it succinctly in his postgame press conference.
"I can't say that the best team won," he said.
That '98 Pacers team could be the best in the franchise's NBA history. But it also could be the one that reached the Finals two years later. Fate and timing are factors beyond the control of players and coaches and often weigh as heavily in the outcome of games and seasons as raw talent — at all levels.
It's not difficult to find Indiana University basketball fans who consider the 1975 team that lost to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament better than the one that went undefeated and won the national championship in '76. The 1960 Muncie Central High School team is one of the best ever to come out of Indiana — it won its regular season games by an average of 32 points — but suffered its only loss of the season in the final game of the state tournament and therefore isn't remembered among Indiana's legendary high school teams. And imagine how the Butler team of 2010 would be remembered if Gordon Hayward's halfcourt heave at the buzzer of the championship game with Duke had been an inch or two more accurate.
One shot, one injury, one untimely loss, one referee's whistle...all can have a huge impact on a team's place in history. The one that wins the most games in the regular season or advances the furthest in the postseason isn't necessarily the best in its class, but it seems obvious one of these two Pacers teams remain the best in franchise history. The teams that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004, 2013, and 2014 had superior athleticism and perhaps even superior talent, but lacked the experience and hard-earned maturity of the teams from 1998 and 2000.
But which of those was best? Certainly, it's not an important issue in times such as these but the question is at least timely. The '98 team was revived by the Jordan documentary and we're in the 20-year anniversary of the 2000 team, so parsing them is as good a topic of discussion as any during a pandemic lockdown.
Proponents of the Pacers team that reached the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals over the one that took things a step further in 2000 have plenty of ammunition for their argument.
The '98 team won 58 games, two more than the 2000 team. Once it adjusted to first-year coach Larry Bird and his staff, it practically breezed through the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs before colliding with the Bulls. The 2000 team, on the other hand, relied on its uncommon experience and cohesion to get through a less joyful regular season. It barely escaped its first-round matchup with Milwaukee, needing a clutch 3-pointer from Travis Best and 41 points from Reggie Miller in the series' ultimate game to avoid elimination on its homecourt. It then defeated Philadelphia and New York, neither of whom were nearly as imposing as Chicago had been in '98, to reach the Finals.
Despite all that, statistical analysis gives an edge to the 2000 team. Here's the breakdown, and here's a spoiler alert, too: there is no obvious answer to this question.
The Pacers teams of 1998 and 2000 had nine players in common: Travis Best, Austin Croshere, Dale Davis, Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller, Derrick McKey, Chris Mullin, Jalen Rose, and Rik Smits.
As for the remainder of the roster, the 2000 team's bench included Sam Perkins, Zan Tabak, Al Harrington, and rookies Jonathan Bender and Jeff Foster. Those five replaced Antonio Davis, Fred Hoiberg, Mark Pope, Mark West, and Etdrick Bohannon from the 1998 team.
Ask the players who filled a roster spot on both teams which was superior, and the results are appropriately mixed.
"I always thought the '98 team was better," Smits says. "I don't remember why, but I recall thinking that way. I was feeling over the hill by the time I retired (after the 2000 playoffs)."
"I think that 2000 team beats that '98 team, all things considered," Best says. "Jalen and myself were better, and Austin Croshere as well."
Rose, who played off the bench in '98, was a starter and the leading scorer in 2000. But he leans toward the superiority of the '98 squad after pausing to think it through.
"The '98 team was better," he says. "You had both Davis brothers and Rik Smits still playing productive. You have Heavy D (McKey), too. That's a throwback frontline. Look at that size, that height."
Jackson, meanwhile, doesn't care to offer an opinion. Doesn't have one, actually.
"I don't think it's fair," he says. "If you told me to name the rosters of both teams, I couldn't do it. They were both great teams and both capable of winning a championship — and should have."
Best, Rose, and Croshere provide the strongest argument for the superiority of the 2000 team, given their significant improvement over the previous two seasons. Croshere, a rookie who was injured and didn't dress for the 1998 playoffs, had become a valuable reserve who brought versatility to the frontline. Best, a third-year backup point guard in 1998, split time with Jackson at point guard in the 2000 playoffs, playing the second and fourth quarters of most games.
Rose who averaged 18.2 points and earned Most Improve Player honors in 2000, represented the only change in the starting lineup from the 1998 team, replacing Mullin at small forward, and averaged nearly seven more points than Mullin had two years earlier.
They weren't the only ones to show improvement, however. Jackson, who was 35 years old by the time the playoffs began in 2000, and Dale Davis (31) also performed better than in '98.
Davis was selected to the All-Star game for the only time in his career in 2000. His greatest improvement came at the foul line. Motivated by his 3-of-10 performance in that Game 7 loss to Chicago in 1998, he hired a shooting coach and reconstructed his shot. He made just .465 of his free throw attempts in 1998 and .685 in 2000. That enabled him to score 59 more points from the foul line in 2000 than in '98, a significant number given all the close games a team plays over the course of the season.
Jackson shot a better percentage in all categories in 2000 than in 1998 and had virtually the same scoring average despite playing 2 1/2 fewer minutes. His efficiency ratio, which measures overall performance, also was slightly improved in 2000.
Comparing Miller's seasons is more complicated. He showed decline during the 2000 regular season, shooting less accurately than in 1998, but performed better in the 2000 postseason than in '98 — and that's the more relevant comparison. He averaged four more points, shot better from the field and had a significantly better efficiency ratio in the 2000 playoffs. He also played the lead role in the close-out game in each of the first three rounds, scoring 41 points against Milwaukee, 25 against Philadelphia, and 34 against New York. He suffered a nightmarish 1-of-16 shooting performance in Game 1 of the Finals against the Lakers but averaged 27.8 points in the remaining five games.
The other three holdovers from the 1998 team showed various degrees of decline in 2000. Smits' ongoing foot problems had been solved but other body parts were breaking down. Playing five fewer minutes per game in 2000 than in '98, his scoring average dropped nearly four points and his shooting percentages slumped as well.
Like he said, he was over the hill.
Mullin (36) and McKey (33) also were breaking down physically and would retire after the 2000-01 season, when they played for other teams. Mullin played in just 47 games and averaged 5.1 points in 2000. He had occasional flashes of production, such as in the final regular season road game at Philadelphia when he started for one of only two times that season (Miller and Jackson were given the night off) and scored 21 points while hitting 5-of-8 3-pointers. He wasn't a significant factor in the playoffs, however.
McKey played in just 57 regular season games in 1998 but had enough left to be a significant factor in the playoffs in non-scoring ways. He played in just 32 regular season games two years later and averaged 4.3 points.
So, that's six players in the improved column for the 2000 team and three in the declined category. And while scoring isn't the only measuring stick for a player, the 2000 "remainders" who hadn't played for the Pacers in the 1998 playoffs contributed 3.8 more points per game than the players in '98 who weren't still with the team in 2000.
For many, the comparison of the two teams comes down to Antonio Davis and Sam Perkins. Davis was a valuable reserve in 1998, averaging 9.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 26.7 minutes. Perkins, 38 years old in 2000, averaged 6.6 points and 3.6 rebounds over 20 minutes.
Davis was such a respected player that Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh was able to trade him for the fifth pick in the draft following the 1999 lockout season. Davis went on to have an All-Star season in Toronto and earned a max contract.
Perkins, however, brought another legitimate 3-point threat to the Pacers, which enabled them to keep pace with the league trend. He hit 89 of them in 2000 at a 41 percent clip, and that weapon is one of the major differences between the two teams. The 1998 Pacers ranked ninth in made threes and second in accuracy. The 2000 group ranked first in both categories.
(As an indication of how the league has changed over the past couple of decades, this season's Pacers team averages 27.5 3-point attempts per game, which is still short of coach Nate McMillan's goal of 30. The 2000 team averaged 18.1 attempts. The 1998 team averaged 12.5.)
The 2000 Pacers also were the NBA's best foul-shooting team (they had been sixth in '98) and were a better rebounding team than in '98, although still not a good one. They ranked 20th in total rebounds, seven spots higher than in '98.
Antonio Davis was key piece on the 1998 Pacers team, but his departure from Indiana cleared minutes for emerging young players like Austin Croshere in the 2000 run to the NBA Finals. (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
It's a common argument that Walsh should not have traded Antonio Davis for the draft pick that brought Jonathan Bender before the 1999-2000 season. Davis, obviously, would have contributed more than the teen-aged Bender in the 2000 season, and on the surface it seems his bulk and experience might have helped contain Shaquille O'Neal when the Pacers met the Lakers in the Finals.
It's a big maybe, though.
O'Neal was at the peak of his career in 2000. He averaged 30.6 points in the Finals and was unstoppable everywhere but the foul line, where he hit just 39 percent of his attempts. Would Antonio Davis have fared any better than Smits, Dale Davis, or Perkins against the agile 325-pound O'Neal?
He would have liked to try, at least. He watched the 2000 Finals on television as a member of the Toronto Raptors, wishing then and still today he had never left the Pacers. He weighed between 240-250 pounds, hardly enough to match O'Neal's bulk and strength, but perhaps he could have fronted O'Neal, made him run the floor, done whatever was necessary to help wear him down.
"I think I could have been a tremendous help," he says. "It wasn't necessarily how much you weigh, because you can't physically try to match up with Shaq. That wasn't my thing. But I know I'm in heckuva good shape and if I can keep a body on you and wear you down so come the fourth quarter we can even the playing field a little bit, then I've got a shot.
"At least that's how I saw it," Davis adds, laughing. "That's what I told myself."
Perkins weighed 10 to 20 more pounds than Antonio Davis and got his turns leaning on O'Neal. Walsh recalls Perkins doing as good a job as anyone with the impossible chore and offers this bottom line to the argument.
"Nobody could guard Shaq."
The argument for retaining Antonio Davis also ignores the fact the Pacers had a logjam at the "four" position that needed to be addressed. The Davises and Croshere had shared the role in 1999, and all were frustrated enough by their lack of playing time to air gripes publicly. Antonio, remember, asked for a trade after that season so he could become a starter. To bring all three back for another season likely would have only heightened their frustration and damaged team chemistry.
Besides, Croshere and Perkins brought needed versatility to the offense by providing 3-point threats that spread the floor. Croshere averaged 15.2 points and 6 rebounds in the 2000 Finals, setting himself up to be one of the NBA's premier free agents that summer. Would Antonio Davis have contributed more than that? And it's not as if Davis' hypothetical contributions can be added to that 2000 team like bonus stats. If he were playing, Dale Davis and Croshere would have played and contributed less.
"With Dale and Antonio, you had two excellent players but there was a lot of redundancy," Croshere says. "I was significantly different than Antonio and complemented Rik and Dale in a different way."
Perkins did the same, adding a laid-back style of veteran leadership that was readily accepted in the locker room.
"Sam brought a lot to the table," Best says. "He was another guy who could play center, another guy who could knock down the three. He was so professional, so efficient."
Croshere adds another what-if to the mix. The 2000 team might have been better, he says, but perhaps the 1998 team would have been better suited to compete against the Lakers.
The primary advantage of the 1998 Pacers over the 2000 version might lie with intangibles. The '98 team was the first under coach Larry Bird, and spent the season in something resembling honeymoon bliss. The players were thrilled that Bird had come out of retirement to coach them and flourished in his trusting, uplifting approach.
The 1999-2000 season, however, was more of a grind. Bird announced before it began that it would be his last. That and the fact he was coaching his third season with the team removed some of the glow from the romance. That group won 56 games largely because of its superior experience and ingrained cohesion. It seemed in some respects on autopilot.
"I do remember there being some issues at times with the 2000 team," Croshere says.
Which is not to say the culture had turned sour. It just wasn't as great as in '98.
"I was in the NBA for 12 years," Croshere says. "The first three years (with the Pacers) were probably the most professional teams I was part of. By NBA standards that 2000 team had an incredible locker room. Maybe you noticed things here and there, but from the perspective of a 12-year career, that 2000 team was a great one to be part of."
Selecting one of these two teams over the other amounts to acts of extreme deconstruction and analysis. Both were great, both barely fell short of winning a championship, both had admirable intangibles. Arguments and counter arguments can be made all day, in either way.
"I'll tell you the truth," Walsh says. "I know you need something to write about, but I wonder why you're asking me all this."
And perhaps that's the larger point. These two teams provided the peak moments in a seven-year span that began in 1994 in which the Pacers reached the conference finals five times. The core of those teams barely changed in that period, recalling an era vastly unlike today when rosters turn over frequently because of free agency.
"We don't live in that world anymore," Croshere says. "It's a different landscape now. You're going to continue to see great teams, but it's hard to imagine fans can fall in love with a core group of players that will be together for the next six or seven years."
Prefer the 1998 Pacers team? Fine. Like the 2000 team better? OK. Better yet, appreciate the entire collection.
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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