With Artest gone, team must move on

By Steve Hammer

The Pacers finally pulled the trigger on the Ron Artest deal last week, sending the troubled Tru Warier to Sacramento and fixing their most notable personnel issue.

But even the addition of three-time All-Star Peja Stojakovic can't fix a team that looks even more dysfunctional and out of it than ever before. All the pieces are in place for another disastrous season.

Like last year, Jermaine O'Neal is gone for the last two months of the year. Like last year, Jamaal Tinsley is injured every other day. Like last year, Jonathan Bender gets paid to do nothing while refusing to retire.

There are some differences, and they're not necessarily positive ones for the Pacers. The concept of team loyalty, or even the appearance of it, appears to be gone. Artest's complaints about the heavily structured system of coach Rick Carlisle have spread to other players, with even the soft-spoken Anthony Johnson taking swipes at the coach in the media.

In the next two weeks, Indiana plays six consecutive home games, including visits from Kobe Bryant and both teams from last year's NBA Finals. With team morale at an all-time low, the Indiana Pacers find themselves faced with perhaps the most daunting challenge in franchise history: how not to fall apart completely.

"I learned that when you add a dysfunctional person to a functional group, sooner or later, the whole group is dysfunctional," Walsh told ESPN's Chad Ford after the Artest trade was consummated. Even with the dysfunctional person traded away, the dysfunction remains.

Stojakovic finds himself thrust into a leadership role on a team that desperately needs calmness and quiet accomplishment to move forward. Widely expected to opt out of his contract at the end of the year, he's been sentenced to three months in Pacerland, where excuses are abundant and in-fighting is rampant.

Johnson is only the latest Pacer to complain publicly about the coaching style of Carlisle. And Carlisle himself, usually the epitome of calmness, nearly snapped after the terrible Atlanta Hawks pummeled his team.

Has the team hit bottom? Can it recover from its self-inflicted wounds and salvage something from this season?

It's gotten so bad on the IndyStar.com Pacers message boards that one thread suggested troubled big man Shawn Kemp, out of the league for two years, as the answer to the Pacers' problems.

If the Pacers can make chicken salad out of this season, it'll have to happen now, against the top talent in the league. With a healthy O'Neal and a rejuvenated Artest, a Pacers-Pistons game would be a must-see. The long-awaited meeting against the Pistons on Saturday looks like just another stop on Detroit's way to 70 wins.

As for Artest, a week that began with him sitting at home in Indianapolis ended up with a fresh start and a very credible debut with the Kings. Changing his uniform number to 93 because he said it represents "infinite energy," he made an impact on the struggling Sacramento team.

And although the Kings continued their pre-Artest agenda - blowing games late - getting Ron-Ron on their team looks like a coup so far. Fans are energized, TV ratings are up and Sacramento appears to be on the rise.

The Pacers, however, are too busy pointing fingers at each other to win games. Even Larry Bird is spouting off to the press, saying that the Simons - not he - wanted to keep Artest. Walsh, in his post-trade press conference, noted that Bob Kravitz of "The Star" had been right all along about Artest.

Stojakovic finds himself thrown into the middle of this mess. The nearly impossible task he has been given is to resurrect this team. The Pacers have frequently proven their detractors wrong, but at this point, for all purposes, their season may as well be over.

And they called Artest crazy for wanting out.

Steve Hammer's Blog


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