Thursday April 3rd, 2008

Rebuilding is like recession: No one wants to hear about it or talk about it, but after enough time passes, it becomes inevitable.

For the Indiana Pacers, that inevitability has arrived.

While the Pacers are not in as dire straights as the Knicks (no marketable talent besides David Lee) or the Bucks (gambled -- and lost -- that Michael Redd was a franchise player and overpaid for nearly everyone else on the roster), the situation in Indiana is far from appealing.

The capped-out Pacers, who have a $66.7 million payroll this season, are tied into numerous long-term contracts. They are drawing crowds like Kevin Federline, with a league-low average attendance of 12,045. They have as many off-the-court problems as the Cincinnati Bengals. And they have a franchise player in Jermaine O'Neal who, at 29, is on the downside of his career.

"I think everyone knows our challenges," said Pacers president Larry Bird, who has assumed total control of basketball operations from Donnie Walsh. "It's not only on the court but it's off the court. Financially, we're in a situation [where] we're up against the [luxury-tax threshold] and we will not go over, so we've got to do some constructive things to make this team better. Hopefully in the summer we'll be able to talk to a lot of different teams and make the moves we need to make and have a great draft pick."

Where does Bird start? Here are four things Indiana has to do to get back in contention:

1. Regain stability.

Walsh's decision to step down as the team's CEO has shaken up an already tumultuous situation. While Bird has been running the day-to-day operations since Walsh hired him in 2003, that didn't stopped general managers throughout the league from calling Walsh or, in some cases, Pacers vice president David Morway.

"When other general managers call, they really want to call the person that they're going to be talking to and going to make that decision," Walsh said before being named Knicks president. "Since I've been here so long, a lot of them would call me because they felt I would ultimately make the decision. A lot of them would call Larry. You don't want that confusion out there."

Added Bird: "There is no question one voice is the way to go. A lot of younger GMs in the league would call me and some of the older guys would call Donnie. That really didn't make a lot of sense."

That sentiment was echoed by several executives I spoke with over the last week. "Larry could be tough to talk to if you didn't play with him," a Western Conference GM said. "And the older guys, the Rod Thorns of the league, they would always call Donnie."

With Walsh gone, Bird needs to establish stability in the front office. His first order of business should be to give coach Jim O'Brien a well-deserved vote of confidence, as the Pacers have stayed in the Eastern Conference playoff race despite playing half the season without O'Neal or starting point guard Jamaal Tinsley. Certainly the Pacers are not yet built in O'Brien's image, not when they are surrendering the fifth-most points in the league (105.8) and ranking a mediocre 14th in field-goal-percentage defense (45.8). But O'Brien is a proven defensive coach who will eventually mold the team to his liking. (For instance, in O'Brien's first full season in Boston, the Celtics improved from 27th to third in field-goal defense.)

The fact that Bird and O'Brien are on the same page regarding the team's future is a positive. O'Brien said he and Bird have had "hundreds" of conversations since he was hired last May and "have not disagreed on anything in any of them." Throwing his full-throated support behind O'Brien would be a strong statement by Bird to his players that the coach is there to stay.

"I appreciate [O'Brien's effort] both on and off the court," Bird said. "Hopefully moving forward we will have a great working relationship."

2. Trade Tinsley and O'Neal.

This won't be easy. Tinsley (three years, $21.4 million left) and O'Neal (two years, $44.3 million) have unfavorable contracts, not to mention myriad other issues.

Tinsley has been involved in several off-the-court incidents in the last year and a half. Statistically, the 6-foot-3 Tinsley should be considered among the league's top playmakers; he is averaging 11.9 points and 8.4 assists this season. But the Pacers shopped him all over the league before the trading deadline and there were no takers. Look for the Pacers to continue those efforts in the offseason, even if they're ultimately forced to take 30 cents on the dollar for their starting point guard since 2001.

As for O'Neal, the 12-year veteran has struggled with injuries the last four seasons and may not be up to the role of franchise player anymore. And there aren't many teams out there willing to pay $22 million per season for a No. 2 guy.

New York, however, is an intriguing possibility for O'Neal. Walsh, who acquired O'Neal from Portland in 2000, might be amenable to bringing in his former player. In return, the Pacers could take back Stephon Marbury, who will make $21 million next season in the last year of his deal and could be agreeable to a buyout.

3. Use their high draft pick (or leverage it) to get a point guard or center.

Drafting the best available player is generally the best option, but the Pacers need to get specific. Bird told SI.com on Wednesday that the draft was his top priority and that there were "a couple" of players the Pacers were monitoring closely.

If O'Neal returns next season, finding a physical center to play alongside him should be a priority. Starting center Jeff Foster is an O'Brien favorite whom the coach lobbied to keep at the deadline. Though the 6-11, 250-pound Foster has a lot of heart, he is undersized for the position.

Meanwhile, if the Pacers could unload Tinsley, that would leave the point guard position wide open. Beyond Memphis' Derrick Rose, the draft isn't expected to feature many top-flight pure point guards. If Indiana could package its pick to, say, Toronto to acquire either T.J. Ford or soon-to-be restricted free agent Jose Calderon, that would be worth considering.

4. Have patience.

This is not a quick fix. Unless they pick up some expiring contracts, the Pacers will not have any significant salary-cap space until 2010. The temptation might be to acquire a few stopgap players to keep the team in playoff contention in the weak East. But contending for an almost certain first-round exit and attracting a few hundred more fans per night should not be the priority. Building the team the right way should, and that process could take years.

"Some of the incidents we have had here with some of our players have really turned our fan base off," Bird said. "What we have to do as a group is put the type of team out there that our fans want to see. You come to our games, you can see all the empty seats, so there is a disconnect there. By getting the type of players that play hard every night and do the things in the community we should be doing, I think over time we'll get [the fans] to come back because they do have a great pride and a great passion for this team deep down."

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