You can tell, just by looking at Ron Artest on the court, that he is a changed man. There he is, in a meaningless preseason game against the world champion Spurs, driving to the hole, blocking shots, keeping Tony Parker in check and playing harder than the other nine men on the court combined. After a historically harsh suspension and league-mandated penitence, Artest will be the key man in the new-look Indiana Pacers, who'll be taking the court for the first time in 17 years without Reggie Miller on the squad.
The NBA press seems to have mixed reactions to the new era of the Pacers. Sports Illustrated picked them to finish first in their division, for example, while other projections have them finishing third or even fourth.
When the Pacers open their season Nov. 2 against the Orlando Magic, they'll certainly be an untested quantity. Despite two All-Stars in Artest and Jermaine O'Neal, a Lithuanian superstar in Sarunas Jasikevicius and Danny Granger, the steal of the NBA Draft, this team will have to prove itself on the court before people start believing in them.
To that end, we did what weather forecasters everywhere do when they don't have a clue: go to the computer models.
In this case, the computer models are the two main NBA videogames, EA Sports' NBA Live 06 and Take-Two Interactive's NBA 2K6, and simulated a full season with each.
First, a note about each of the games. NBA Live, the reigning sales leader, offers a new feature called Freestyle Superstars, which allows players with certain attributes to perform superhuman dunks, passes, blocks or steals. So Jermaine O'Neal's hook shot in the paint is faithfully represented and Steve Nash can do his no-look, behind-the-back pass with ease.
As another reviewer noted, it amounts to pressing the "I win" button, so powerful are the skills. Strangely, the graphics on the PS2 version look less detailed than last year's version. Most likely, the graphics have been maxed out for this generation of game consoles.
2K Sports, a division of Take-Two, held a license with ESPN until this year, adding a dimension of authenticity to their games. Shed of that brand name, NBA 2K6 has to earn its customers with the gameplay.
For the most part, they succeed. Last year's game was filled with glitches and exploits that unscrupulous players could use to gain an unfair advantage. While those have been removed, the control scheme is radically different than NBA 2K5, meaning veterans of the series will have to learn the game all over again.
The right analog stick has been mapped as a "shot stick," which has a steep learning curve. When mastered, however, it allows players to pull off reverse dunks, power slams and unstoppable layups.
The online experience is where the game shines most. In contrast to Live, 2K6 offers full statistics, including a scouting report for online opponents that includes tendencies and a ranking system that makes sense.
So how did the Pacers do in the simulated seasons? In NBA Live, the Pacers breezed through the first half of the season before Jamaal Tinsley and O'Neal suffered injuries. Thrust into the starting lineup, Jasikevicius went on a tear, averaging 20 points and nine assists per game. The Pacers finished the season with a 55-27 record and won the Central Division, four games ahead of the Pistons.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Pacers swept the Philadelphia 76ers despite a 50-point effort from Allen Iverson in Game Four. In the second round, the Chicago Bulls (!) put up a furious effort and extended the series to a sixth game, at which time O'Neal and Artest combined for 75 points and won.
In the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat, the Pacers finally met their match. After splitting the first two games in Miami, Indiana dropped both games at Conseco Fieldhouse and returned to Miami down 3-1. A heroic effort in Game Five extended the series, but in Game Six, Shaq and Dwayne Wade took over and routed the Pacers. The Heat went on to defeat the Spurs in the Finals.
On 2K6, it was much the same story. The Pacers finished 61-21 and breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Pistons forced a seventh game in the ECF, but the Pacers prevailed by a two-point margin.
Facing the Spurs in the Finals, the Pacers found themselves outmatched and lost in five games.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The real season starts in a week, with all teams 0-0 and holding championship dreams. The Pacers have as good a shot as anyone.
And the only thing you need to know is that Jasikevicius is pronounced "yah-sa-KEV-uh-chiss."