By Marty Burns
January 20, 2005

Wednesday's ruling by an arbitrator to reduce Jermaine O'Neal's suspension from 25 games to 15 wasn't quite the Christmas gift it appears to be. Yes, it helps. But what Indiana really needed was for Ron Artest to be made eligible for the postseason. Indiana could survive a few more games without O'Neal. But they aren't going to win the NBA title without Artest. Indiana officials, meanwhile, aren't even convinced the arbitrator's ruling on O'Neal will stand. The NBA challenged it in federal court, and its lawyers likely will continue to keep fighting it with a vengeance even after a federal judge backed the arbitrator's ruling on Thursday. David Stern does not want to yield an inch of his authority in this regard, especially when it could be a bargaining issue in the next collective bargaining agreement.

The good news for the Pacers is that they instantly will return to the upper echelon of teams. The upcoming schedule for the next 10 games includes winnable games against Detroit, New Orleans, at Charlotte, at New Jersey and at home against Milwaukee. With O'Neal in uniform, they should win most of those, if not all. More important, O'Neal will get a chance to regain his rhythm and timing by January, when Indiana plays nine of 15 on the road. All things considered, Indiana has weathered the storm extremely well. After Wednesday's games, the Pacers were just two games back of the Cavs for the Central Division lead. But can Indiana survive the rigors of the postseason without Artest to defend on the perimeter? Probably not, which is why some Pacers fans right now are still saying "Bah Humbug!"

When the Nets acquired Vince Carter in last Friday's blockbuster trade, some around the NBA were perplexed. New Jersey, after all, had let go of free agent Kenyon Martin this past summer because it couldn't afford his $80 million price tag. Now here the Nets were acquiring Carter, a player with four years and $57 million left on his deal. Why Vince, but not K-Mart? Basically, it was a matter of timing.

Last summer, when Martin was a free agent, the Nets' ownership situation was still in flux. Bruce Ratner's group had bought the team, but it was still hashing out some of the minority stakes. When Denver came in with a front-loaded contract offer for Martin, one that potentially could have triggered luxury-tax consequences, the Nets' ownership structure wasn't secure enough to know it could absorb the cost. "There was a transition period going on at the time," Nets president Rod Thorn said. "The new ownership was in place, but parts of it were changing at the exact time Kenyon had to be dealt with."

Shortly after Thorn dispatched Martin to the Nuggets in a sign-and-trade, the Nets' ownership situation was settled. Unfortunately, the damage had been done, with fans and media ripping Ratner for being cheap. He later said he wanted to keep Martin all along, and would have done so had he known his partners would have been willing to accept it. Ratner's willingness to take on Carter's salary provides compelling evidence that he wasn't lying.

With Carter traded and Jason Kidd not likely to go anywhere soon, Blazers forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim is now the hot name on the trade block. The 6-foot-9 veteran is an All-Star-caliber player, but he's a free agent after the season and he's stuck in a logjam in Portland, where the Blazers are building around youngsters Zach Randolph and Darius Miles. In the final year of a contract that pays him $14.6 million, Abdur-Rahim is the perfect pickup for a team seeking short-term help in the frontcourt.

Blazers general manager John Nash loves Abdur-Rahim, but Nash admits he will listen to offers. The Raptors were interested, but the Carter trade has taken them out of the running. The Bulls also have been mentioned, but Eddy Curry's strong play of late seems to have made it less likely Chicago will give him up. The Nets need a power forward and could still make a bid, especially if Kidd decides he still wants out of New Jersey, but that seems doubtful.

Abdur-Rahim admitted Tuesday the Carter trade has left him wondering what might happen. "I'm just trying to play as well as I can and help my team win games," he said. "I don't mind staying here all season if that's the way it works out. In some ways I hope I don't get traded in midseason. I went through that before, and it's kind of difficult. It's easier to start over after the season."

Any team acquiring Abdur-Rahim won't have to worry about his professionalism. Despite being in a contract year, he has never complained publicly about sharing time or getting less touches. Nash calls him a "consummate professional" and "one of my all-time favorite players." Here's hoping that if Abdur-Rahim, who has yet to make the playoffs in an eight-year NBA career spent in Vancouver, Atlanta and Portland, winds up in a winning situation if he does get traded somewhere this season.

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