Building an NBA Contender Takes Years, Ruining a Franchise Takes a Moment

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Building an NBA Contender Takes Years, Ruining a Franchise Takes a Moment
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Nov. 19, 2004.

The Indiana Pacers and the reigning NBA champions, the Detroit Pistons, meet in a much-hyped rematch of the previous season's Eastern Conference Finals.

The Pacers are off to a strong start—6-2 on the season, a 15-point lead over the Pistons with less than a minute remaining all but assuring Indy of another notch in the win column.

A hard foul by Ron Artest on Ben Wallace sparks some pushing and shoving. Benches clear. The officials stop play. A beer comes flying down from the stands and hits Artest, who's laying on the scorer's table.

Then, all hell breaks loose:

You probably don't need me to rehash the entire "Malice at the Palace" for you. Jonathan Abrams revisited the league-altering event, in all of its infamy, with a brilliantly detailed oral history for Grantland in February 2012.

During a recent appearance on The John Feinstein Show on CBS Sports Radio, outgoing NBA commissioner David Stern referred to that brawl as the toughest moment of his 30-year tenure overseeing the sport (via NBCSports.com's Kurt Helin):

...the brawl that happened between the Pistons and the Pacers provided much of the media in the course of that weekend to use the words ‘thugs’ and ‘punks’ with respect to all of our players which to me is freighted with respect to what they’re really saying and brought up visions of the way the media treated us a decade or more earlier.

Indeed, the "Malice at the Palace" delivered a black eye to the league's teetering, post-Michael Jordan reputation. It took the NBA years to move past that singular ugliness, to address the lingering concerns and regain the public's trust and admiration, before it could truly set out upon the path towards exploding global popularity on which The Association is and has been tracked for the last few years now.

On a smaller scale, the same could be said of the Pacers. They're back on top, with a core of young, home-grown stars, a historically dominant defense, a strong playoff run in their back pocket and the best record in basketball right now (tied with San Antonio).

But the club that Frank Vogel currently has running amok around the NBA was years in the making. This is one whose construction required the Pacers to dig themselves out of a massive hole, particularly with their fans, in addition to the difficult, imprecise work that comes with building a championship contender.

 

Before the Fall 

D. Lippitt/Einstein/Getty Images

To fathom how far and how hard the Pacers fell in the aftermath of the brawl, it's necessary to first understand where the team stood prior to it and what went into reaching that point. At the time, Indy was the favorite to take home the 2005 Larry O'Brien Trophy. The summer after his Pacers had succumbed to the Pistons in six games, then-general manager Donnie Walsh added Stephen Jackson to a sturdy nucleus coming off a franchise-record 61-win season.

As far as star power and statistics were concerned, that 2004-05 core was led by the intimidating duo of Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest. The seeds of that pairing were planted five years prior, in 2000.

2000: O'Neal had arrived in Naptown in late August 2000, by way of a trade that sent Dale Davis to the Portland Trail Blazers while seeing Joe Kleine join the Pacers.

The Blazers, apparently, had "given up" on O'Neal before his 22nd birthday. They figured Davis would be a better fit for a team that had been on the cusp of a championship the season prior, before blowing a 15-point lead to the Los Angeles Lakers in the final quarter of the final game of the Western Conference Finals.

2000-01: During O'Neal's first season in Indy, the Pacers fell from 56 wins and a spot in the NBA Finals (against the aforementioned Lakers) to just 41 wins and a first-round ouster as the eighth seed in the East, at the hands of Allen Iverson's Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers. That campaign, though, was a success for O'Neal. He flourished in his first taste of full-time starting duty, averaging 12.9, 9.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 32.6 minutes per game.

2001-02: The following season, O'Neal earned not only his first All-Star nod, but also the league's Most Improved Player award. His streak of consecutive All-Star appearances as a Pacer would eventually run to six, thereby qualifying O'Neal as a perennial participant for the better part of the 2000s.

2002: Artest came to town shortly after O'Neal's trip to Philly for his first All-Star Game in February 2002. On the 19th of that month, Walsh pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade that sent Jalen Rose (a key member of Indy's 2000 finalist squad), Travis Best (who went toe-to-toe with MJ in 1998), Norm Richardson and a second-round pick to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Artest, Ron Mercer, Brad Miller and Kevin Ollie.

2003-04: Like O'Neal, Artest eventually blossomed in Indy. In his first full season with the Pacers, Artest posted career highs in points (15.5) and rebounds (5.2). The year after that (2003-04), Artest bested those numbers, earned his first All-Star berth and became just the fourth guard/swingman in NBA history to take home Defensive Player of the Year honors.

2004-05: Artest and O'Neal were soon joined by Jackson—another wily but productive youngster—by way of an offseason trade, which saw Al Harrington, a solid scorer whom Walsh had plucked out of the high school ranks with the 25th pick in the 1998 draft, sent to the Atlanta Hawks. Jackson had won a title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003 and, along with a statistical line hovering around 18-5-3, was expected to bring some championship know-how to Rick Carlisle's locker room.

 

Don't Forget Reggie

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

But as promising as those three were, and as bright as Indy's future appeared to be on Nov. 18, hardly any of that hope would've been possible without Reggie Miller. The UCLA legend had become the most pivotal of Walsh's many draft-day coups.

With Miller as his mainstay, Walsh fashioned an operation that qualified for the playoffs 15 times between 1989 and 2005. You could say, then, that the title run on which the Pacers were to embark in 2004-05 was, in some ways, nearly two decades in the making.

By 2005, Miller was on his last legs. At the age of 39, he was considering retirement and had already settled into a supporting role behind O'Neal, Artest and now Jackson. The brawl, it seems, merely sealed his fate at season's end.

Even though Miller wasn't even dressed to play that night at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

 

Starting Over 

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

The fallout from the brawl was unprecedented, in large part because the melee itself was beyond the size and scope of any with which the NBA had previously had to cope.

O'Neal was slapped with a 25-game suspension that was eventually reduced to 15 via arbitration. Jackson suffered a 30-game ban. Artest was disbarred from the remainder of the Pacers' regular-season and playoff games in 2004-05, resulting in an NBA-record 86-game hiatus.

All three were charged with misdemeanor assault and battery.

Seven other players were punished as well, though none nearly as severely as those three were. The Pacers finished the 2004-05 season with a record of 44-38 (17 wins fewer than the year prior), good enough for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Indy would go on to upend the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs before once again succumbing to the Pistons in six.

The post-melee decay had only just begun.

As expected, Miller retired at season's end. In January 2006, the Pacers traded the troublesome Artest to the Sacramento Kings for Peja Stojakovic. Less than a year later, Jackson was shipped to the Golden State Warriors. In June 2008, O'Neal, coming off yet another injury-riddled campaign, was offloaded to the Toronto Raptors.

By that time, the Pacers were in the midst of what would become a four-year playoff drought. A team that had once hovered around the middle of the pack in attendance was now playing in front of a crowd, at what was then known as Conseco Fieldhouse, that still left a third of the seats without account.

Perhaps the melee wasn't responsible for the entirety of the decline, though if you had to pinpoint any single moment as the genesis of the quagmire into which the Pacers had collapsed, that evening at the Palace would've been it.

That was certainly the case in the mind of Donnie Walsh, who recently told Bleacher Report of the brawl and its effects. "It’s so away from what you want that you have to confront it, and it’s not going to get better.

"In the case here, I was here and traded Jack [Stephen Jackson] and [Ron] Artest only because they seemed to be the focal point of a lot of what was going on there, whether it was just or not," Walsh said. "I personally don’t blame them, but that’s what everyone thought, you know? That they caused all the problems."

In essence, Walsh, Larry Bird and the rest of Indy's front office felt it necessary to throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. A few errant swings had poisoned the organization's entire reputation, to the extent that management had little choice but to wipe the slate clean and go about the business of building a new team that could regain the trust of the fans and represent the hoops-hungry Hoosier State with dignity and respect.

Not that any part of that was going (or turned out) to be easy. 

Walsh added, "Then you had to go into the process of, it was difficult to make the trades. Once you made the trades, you had to continue. Larry had to continue on with the next group of guys that he traded...You either want to replace them with guys who can fit in right away with what you’re doing or you want to replace them with short-term contracts that will leave you room in the cap to go out and get players that you think fit in."

 

The First Steps Forward

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

For the Pacers, the initial seeds of their current prosperity were sewn shortly after that disgraceful season was brought to a close. The team used the 17th pick in the 2005 draft to select a rangy scorer out of New Mexico by the name of Danny Granger. Three years later, the trade that sent O'Neal to Canada brought back another promising prospect taken 17th overall: a stiff, 7'2" project-of-a-center from Georgetown named Roy Hibbert.

Two years after that, Bird made a pair of particularly prescient picks. Both were tantalizingly talented but incredibly raw. Both would require the Pacers to invest inordinate amounts of time, patience, persistence and training to mold them into pros. One was 19, the other all of 20.

The former was Lance Stephenson, who's enjoying yet another eye-opening season as the Pacers' starting shooting guard. The latter was Paul George, who is performing at an MVP pace in the wake of signing a max extension with Indy this past offseason.

Those two, along with Hibbert and the gap-filling acquisitions of George Hill and David West in 2011, constitute the core of a Pacers club that's gunning for much more than just its fourth straight postseason appearance. Indy nearly knocked the Miami Heat from their perch last season. With the additions of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson (among others), they have every reason to believe that same goal is within reach this time around. 

But the ease of rattling off the various steps by which Bird and Walsh cobbled together the current contender on hand in Indianapolis belies just how difficult and uncertain the whole endeavor has been.

Hibbert, George and Stephenson were all far from polished as prospects when they first arrived. As such, there was no guarantee that any of them would develop into sturdy rotation players, much less All-Stars.

David West was coming off a torn ACL when he inked his original two-year deal with Indy after the lockout. George Hill had some experience as a starter prior to his homecoming, but he had still served predominantly as Tony Parker's understudy with the San Antonio Spurs.

So many things had to go right for the Pacers in the personnel department, without a draft pick higher than 10th overall in any given year, before they could reestablish the culture that's borne of and prerequisite to a winning operation.

Roy Hibbert told Bleacher Report, "I looked at it like how Oklahoma [City] did it in the draft. You know, we didn’t have the high draft picks like Oklahoma did with James Harden and Russell [Westbrook] and KD [Kevin Durant]...

"We built this through the draft and also bringing in quality guys that know what they’re doing, like Luis Scola. Nobody on our team is flashy, per se. Except for Paul, he’s a high-flying superstar. But we’ve cultivated a community environment where it’s hard work, no superstars per se, no attitude, no egos. And it helps us get to where we want to be. Hopefully, it’ll get us to where we want to be."

In some respects, the Pacers are right where they want they want to be: atop the Eastern Conference standings, courtesy of a stingy defense, with Danny Granger back at practice.

Getting there took much more than just an infusion of talent, though. To vanquish those demons and get the team back to the business of winning basketball games, the Pacers had to compile a cast of characters whose personalities fit the overarching organizational plan and meshed well with one another.

As head coach Frank Vogel recently told Bleacher Report, "When we made a change a few years back to sort of put character first in terms of the players we bring in here, I think our culture changed. We had a situation where we had an image problem dating back to The Brawl and a lot of off-the-court arrests. Our fanbase sort of turned their back on us.

"Ever since then, we’ve had character in the forefront because of how we build our team. By doing so, we’ve put together not just a great collection of talented players, but great people, too. When you have that, that’s where your culture begins."

Indy appears to have reestablished that culture and regained most of the trust and respect among its fans that disappeared with the infamous brawl. However, the turnstile stats have yet to reflect the totality of that recovery. According to ESPN, the Pacers ranked just 20th in attendance percentage last season, when they went 30-11 at home, and have slipped a bit (to 21st) through six games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in 2013-14.

On the whole, though, Indy's attendance numbers are trending upward:

Infogr.am

The improvement of the on-court product has had plenty to do with that, but so, too, have the team's own outreach efforts within the community. Everyone within the Pacers organization, players and coaches included, is well aware of the effect that the "Malice at the Palace" had on the all-important relationship between team and fanbase.

Hibbert said, "During the Brawl, we lost a lot of fans and lost a lot of our connection with the fans. We’re always on our best behavior, but we try to do things that go above and beyond to reach out to them. They keep coming to the games.

"My rookie and sophomore years here, there was nobody at the arena. There was nobody in the stands."

Hibbert and his teammates have played more direct roles in bringing the energy and excitement back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Hibbert, Hill and George all pay to fill their own designated sections within the arena. 

Hibbert added, "We’re giving away tickets out of our pockets so that people can enjoy themselves and the environment in the arena can be pretty good."

 

The Persistence of Memory 

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

It's been nine years since the "Malice at the Palace," and the Pacers are still replenishing the ranks of their supporters.

To be sure, they can only control so much of that aspect of their organizational recovery. The Pacers can't force their fans to come to the games. They can't afford to fill every empty seat for free; they're a small-market club whose profit margins are thinner than most due to an agreement dating back to the NBA-ABA merger from which the league is attempting to extricate itself (per ESPN's Chris Broussard). 

What they can do, though, is continue to win basketball games. They can lean on high-character stars (and wild cards like Stephenson) to carry them to victory on the court and connect with fans off of it.

Nine years later, the Pacers appear to have been forgiven for the ugly transgressions of a bygone group of players. But nobody—not in the front office, not on the sidelines, not in the locker room and certainly not in the stands—has forgotten about what happened on that freakiest of Fridays.

Nor should they.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand by the author unless otherwise noted.

Follow the Pacers' ongoing journey with me on Twitter.

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