For most of the past two decades, the Indiana Pacers have been one of the NBA’s most successful organizations, reaching six conference finals, and finishing just two wins shy of the ultimate prize in 2000. During that stretch, the Pacers fell to the best the league had to offer — the Finals-bound Knicks in 1994, Shaq’s Finals bound Magic in 1995, Michael Jordan’s sixth title-winner in 1998, and the first of the Shaq-Kobe winners in L.A.
As you read on, you may notice that this group is a bit 1990s-heavy (and at times not terribly attractive — sorry, but it's true!). Well that’s what happens when the overwhelming majority of a franchise’s success is concentrated into a decade and a half, most notably a six-year stretch. But despite their relatively short run near the top of the NBA, the Pacers came to establish themselves a something of a “large small market” team, surpassing all of the NBA’s so-called “small market” franchises (Utah’s an exception here) in terms of consistency, success, and relevance.
Despite a difficult past decade, one that that included the Palace Melee (and accompanying suspensions), some iffy character guys (Jamaal Tinsley, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Shawne Williams) and a slide back to the Association’s lower half, the status isn't necessarily gone. With an awesome fan base, one of the league’s best buildings, some upcoming cap flexibility, and a pretty talented roster, the Pacers have reason for optimism going forward.
Here’s the blueprint.
A true point guard. That he had a limited offensive skill set was irrelevant, because he looked to score only when a teammate didn’t have a higher percentage chance or it was absolutely necessary. In the six seasons in which Jackson ran the point for the Pacers, only once, in 1996-97, when Jackson was traded to Denver for 52 games before returning the next season, did the team fail to win at least 60 percent of its games.
Jackson was the floor general for some of the most successful teams in franchise history, and teamed with Reggie Miller to form the backcourt of only Pacers team to play in the NBA Finals (2000 v. Lakers; lost in six games). Indiana’s teams of the mid-to-late 1990s put together an outstanding run, making four trips to the conference finals in a six-year stretch, including three straight that culminated in the Finals trip.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, there probably should be more to show for this era, but something always got in the way - Shaq and Penny, a maniacally possessed Jordan and Pippen, a Larry Johnson four-point play, and Shaq and Kobe finally putting it all together. As was the case with Patrick Ewing, had just a couple of minor events played out differently, Jackson would be looked at more like Derek Fisher, and not simply a rock-solid, error-free point guard.
One of the more obvious choices in this series. Miller is one of the game’s all-time great shooters and is the unquestioned face of the Pacers’ franchise. While his numbers are very good, they’re not great. Miller’s per game averages actually fall short of those of Chuck Person (19 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.6 apg).
No, the case for Reggie Miller is not one built on a run of incredible greatness, but rather a near-two decade run of “very good-ness," highlighted by longevity and loyalty to “his team.” Indy’s No. 2 all-time scorer, Rik Smits, scored over 12,400 fewer points than Miller, while the Pacers with the next most threes made - Danny Granger with 651, is barely 25 percent of the way to Miller’s total. While his regular season career averages of 18-3-3 are hardly the stuff of legend, Miller’s 18-year totals of 25,279 points and 2,560 three-pointers made dwarf the accomplishments of any other players in franchise history. All this, and still no talk of the playoffs.
Miller was a very good regular season player, but he was great in the playoffs. Miller raised his game in the postseason. That is a simple, undeniable fact. In the team’s five strongest playoff runs of the 1990s, he scored at a clip nearly five ppg better than his career average (20.6 ppg in 15 career playoffs). For his entire playoff career, Miller continued to hit about 39 percent of his threes, and even managed to marginally improve on his already-awesome 88.8 free throw percentage.
And whether you prefer the word “clutch” or another term, there’s no denying that Miller loved the big stage and was at his best when the lights were brightest.
Before starring in the Sonics 1996 Finals run, Schrempf broke out with the Pacers following a 1989 trade from Dallas. His arrival coincided with the development of talented gunners, Reggie Miller and Chuck Person. Suddenly, a Pacers franchise that had managed just two .500+ seasons in its history became a consistently competitive playoff mainstay.
As the Pacers encountered greater success, Schrempf himself began to develop into one of the NBA’s best all-around players. He won the NBA’s Sixth Man Awards in consecutive seasons (1990-91 & 1991-92) and was named an All-Star in 1992-93. That same season, his last with the Pacers, Schrempf was the only player in the NBA to finish in the top 25 in scoring (19.1 ppg), rebounding (9.5 rpg), and assists (6.0 apg).
Schrempf got a run for his money here from Person (19 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.6 apg, 476 three-pointers made in 479 games), but Detlef gets the nod, thanks to his rebounding, a better all-around offensive game, and greater team success.
In the years to come, Danny Granger will also figure prominently in this discussion. On numbers alone (17.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 38.5% 3-pt in 369 games) he’s already building a compelling case, which could be enough as he accumulates numbers. However, throw in the fact that the Pacers are the only NBA team Granger’s ever suited up for, and even a modest amount of team success could quickly tip the scales in his favor.
Before his career was derailed by knee injuries, Kellogg, the No. 8 pick in the 1982 draft, was one of the NBA’s top young forwards and a member of the 1982 All-Rookie Team. His three healthy seasons in Indiana (19.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg) are as good as any by a Pacers frontcourt player. After missing just nine games his first years in the league, Kellogg only managed to suit up for Indiana 23 times over the next two seasons before he was forced to retire.
Despite playing for some awful teams (68-178, .276 winning percentage in his three healthy seasons), Kellogg earns this spot in part because he’s simply the most talented PF in franchise history, and was extremely productive in the short window in which he was healthy.
Beyond that is that fact that Kellogg simply didn’t face very much stiff competition here, with only the two-headed Davis (Antonio and Dale) monster worthy of consideration. And while the Davis Boys combined for roughly 20-15 for some very strong teams during the Miller era, their tea success is trumped by the fact that neither was good enough on his own to stand out from the pack.
The margin here was razor thin, with greater physical talent and individual achievement squaring off against solid-but-unspectacular, loyal servitude to a franchise’s most successful stretch. As this series unfolds, it’s clear that there is a) no shortage of these scenarios and b) no formula through which to determine a clear winner.
It would have been fully deserved had the statistically superior Jermaine O’Neal (18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 2.4 bpg in 514 games) been here, but no big man personifies the Pacers and the franchise’s best days more than Rik Smits. He spent his entire 12-year career with the Pacers, was an All-Star in 1998, made 10 postseason appearances, five trips to conference finals, and retired after the team’s lone Finals run.
During that time, Smits battled against the Bad Boys Pistons, an aging Kevin McHale, Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, and Shaquille O’Neal - both when was with Orlando and the Lakers. As good as J.O. was (and he was awesome in Indy), making six All-Star teams and leading the 2003-04 team to the only 60-win season in franchise history, and the conference finals, Smits was a central character in the Pacers’ story.
Although I must say that upon examining the numbers, it was a bit shocking to discover just how underwhelming Smits’ career stats were. Along the same lines, it was also surprising to find that O’Neal’s toughest statistical competition came not from Smits, but Herb Williams (15 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.9 bpg in 577 games) and James Edwards (15.9- 7.5 in 303 games).