Mid-season grade: incomplete

Steve Hammer

Without a single cup of beer or punch thrown, the Indiana Pacers' season has been destroyed.

Going into Tuesday night's game at Cleveland, the official halfway point of the 82-game season, the Pacers were 21-19 and fading fast. Their best player is working on his rap album and checking Web sites to see if he's been traded. The second best is frequently injured and is complaining that fans aren't behind them enough.

Their Euroleague superstar has been struggling with consistency. When Austin Croshere is your most consistent and hardworking player, you know there's something wrong. Monday night's pummeling by the woeful Atlanta Hawks was the lowest point yet.

Yep, things are seriously wrong in Pacerland. The team is suffering from malaise. Every player knows that he could be packaged with Ron Artest at any moment and sent to Golden State or Sacramento.

But unlike the Colts, who are destined to failure and must be dismantled lest their choking ability infect the entire state, it's not time to tear apart the Pacers and start from scratch.

Oh, how sunny things seemed before the first game on Nov. 2. Artest, our political prisoner, was liberated from his shackles. He was saying all the right things and playing with more determination than ever.

Danny Granger, the steal of the NBA draft, looked to be a Scottie Pippen in training. And a large percentage of fans had even taken the time to learn how to spell and pronounce Sarunas Jasikevicius.

At some point, like a bad marriage or the Bush Administration, things went seriously, irreparably wrong.

The Tru Warier was injured on Thanksgiving night, one year and five days after the Pistons brawl. While healing up, he shot off his mouth to a reporter and the next thing he knew, he'd made international headlines with a trade demand.

Things deteriorated at an accelerated pace. Injuries mounted. Jermaine O'Neal caught pneumonia. Jamaal Tinsley, whose bones are made of plaster, got hurt again. Even watching their games on TV makes you more susceptible to falls and serious household accidents.

But there is a cure for all of the Pacers' ailments, as numerous as they are: Everybody calm down. Take a deep breath. Accept the fact that a vast right-wing conspiracy has destroyed the first half of the season.

The team is still above .500 and would make the playoffs if the season ended today. On a good night, they're still a scrappy, competitive team. On a bad night, they conjure images of the Toronto Raptors.

But a complete overhaul isn't necessary. While many fans would love to see Artest play for the Pacers again, forget about it. For seven weeks, both Artest and the franchise have been performing Waiting for Godot, patiently trying to make a deal.

But it's going to be tough. The Pacers are the definition of a "motivated seller," and the other NBA teams want to dump their problem players on us. If we're lucky, we'll get a superstar like Ray Allen or a young phenom like Andrew Bynum. If we're not, it'll be Earl Boykins, some equipment and the rights to Fred Hoiberg.

It doesn't matter. The Pacers have a potential championship squad right now. Trade Tinsley, Scot Pollard and Croshere. Start Jasikevicius and Granger and use the newly acquired players to back them up.

Get a real center and let Jermaine O'Neal be Jermaine O'Neal. He's forced to play center and get beaten up for 40 minutes by the other teams' biggest players. The fact that he manages to put up 20 points and 10 rebounds is a minor miracle.

Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird owe the public an explanation about the Artest situation. They should hold a press conference and answer questions for two hours and expel all the poison that's accumulated to date.

There have been darker hours in Pacers history. This isn't time to panic. We must not be weak. We must stay the course. The Pacers will rise again. Help is on the way.