Bird, Carlisle, and Patchwork Pacers Push On


The flashy, splashy "Official Guide and Register" from the National Basketball Development League arrived this past week. Funny, though, there was one team missing: the Indiana Pacers.

   Did you happen to see the Pacers' box score from last Wednesday night? It's a keeper.

Put it this way, here's a list of players whose names were not in the box score: Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal, Stephen Jackson, Austin Croshere, Scot Pollard, Jamaal Tinsley, Reggie Miller, Jeff Foster, Jonathan Bender, and Anthony Johnson. The first three are in the David Stern Stockade. The others are hurt.

There were eight players who did dress, and they had a total of 406 games of NBA experience. Three of the eight were not even on the team 10 days earlier, and two of them were late cuts of the championship-driven New Orleans Hornets. A third, Marcus Haislip, had arrived from his Tennessee home the night before the game. One of the five starters, Eddie Gill, is highlighted on the website of the Dakota Wizards of the CBA. At one point, the Pacers had five players on the floor who had all been elsewhere last year.

It marked the 11th different starting lineup that coach Rick Carlisle used in the first 15 games. By the time the Pacers return to Indiana from the West Coast, where they lost to Sacramento Friday and faced Golden State last night, it might well be 13 lineups in 17 games.

"I call it a fluctuating roster situation," Carlisle said by phone from Sacramento Friday. "There have been a lot of challenges, but we've decided to take an upbeat, positive, and opportunistic approach to this thing."

The crypto-Pacers lost Wednesday's game to the Clippers, 88-76, their second straight defeat after racking up three straight W's following the You-Know-What at Auburn Hills and ensuing suspensions. It was their second loss to the Clippers in three weeks and marked the first time since 1992-93 that the Clippers swept the season series.

It must seem like training camp all over again for Carlisle, who should be named the NBA's Coach of the Month for December regardless of his record. He hasn't had 12 available and healthy players for any game this season. In one six-game stretch, he had nine players or fewer available for four games. Only two of the players who went against the Clippers last Wednesday were on the team last year.

"In a lot of ways, the real challenge is on the new guys," he said. "Marcus Haislip got in late the night before the Clippers game, went to a shootaround, then we had to throw him out there for 25 minutes. These situations are atypical. But when they come up, you end up flying by the seat of your pants. The real problem is when you only have seven or eight guys, you know a couple are going to go heavy into the 40s [in minutes] and that takes a lot out of your reserve tank."

There is help (and hope) on the way. Johnson, recovering from a broken bone in his right hand and a five-game suspension courtesy of the commissioner, was available for Friday's game. Miller (broken bone in left hand) was activated Friday, served his one-game suspension, and planned to play last night. Foster (hip) is hoping to play for the first time this season Tuesday against the Bucks in Indianapolis. Croshere (ribs) and Pollard (back) are in that murky, day-to-day category. Bender (knee) is out for a while. He has played 27 minutes this season.

There also could be help from New York, where arbitrator Roger Kaplan has determined he wants to look at Stern's stiff suspensions and believes he has the power to do so. The league contends otherwise and went to court late Friday to block Kaplan's involvement. Under the terms of Stern's suspensions, O'Neal (25 games) and Jackson (30 games) would be eligible to return in January while Artest is out until next season.

If the union succeeds in getting those penalties reduced, Carlisle may be looking at some familiar faces a lot sooner than anticipated.


The Clippers are on a historic run - for them. The victory over the pseudo-Pacers last Wednesday was their fifth in a row, their longest winning streak since 1995. And that win came after their best November (9-6) since the 1970s, when the franchise was in Buffalo.

We may have been a bit premature in offering up Primoz Brezec of Charlotte as winner of the Most Improved Player award. The Clippers have their own candidate in forward Bobby Simmons, who has taken advantage of injuries to become a regular and valuable player.

"It feels great," he said. "To get an opportunity to start and be on the floor and have a commitment in minutes is huge. I'm thankful to coach [Mike] Dunleavy for that every day."

Simmons is among the league leaders in shooting percentage and free throw percentage. Only one player in NBA history has finished in the top 10 in both categories: the Celtics' Kevin McHale in 1990.

Simmons is in his second season with the Clippers, following two uneventful years in Washington. Until this season, Simmons had started only 13 of his 122 NBA games. Now, he's a regular and making the most of it in the last year of his contract.

"I got the opportunity to start," he said, "and that's the best thing that happened to me. And it's great to be a part of all this. We're on a roll. Everyone likes each other and that's important."

The Clippers could be in for an awakening soon, however. They are in the midst of a stretch in which they play 13 games in 27 days - and 12 of those games are at home in the Staples Center. And the sole road trip was to Golden State, a team they've beaten three times already.


Danny Ainge has no plans to trade Paul Pierce - that should not constitute a bulletin at this point - but it might be worth noting that at least two league executives, both of whom requested anonymity, think Pierce's value is still pretty high. Let's put it this way: If Toronto (Vince Carter) or Portland (Shareef Abdur-Rahim) rang, Ainge wouldn't even take the call.

Here's what one league exec said of Pierce: "He is one of the better offensive players in the game, although it seems there are disgruntled stars all over the league. They get a big deal and enter the pressure cooker. If things go bad for their team, right or wrong they get blamed. It is how they handle the rest that determines their marketability, or creates a trade opportunity."

That last sentence strikes to the core of the Pierce/Celtics dynamic. He may, as Ainge believes, have many more productive years ahead of him. But he also can see that the Celtics are, at best, a few years away from being anything resembling a serious contender. Does Pierce want to spend the prime of his career trying just to get there - and will he be content to make that journey?

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