The 2006-07 Indiana Pacers were no Dream Team. They won 35 games, found enough playing time to give 38-year-old Darrell Armstrong 15 minutes a game and eventually cost Rick Carlisle, an excellent coach, his job.
Danny Granger was a budding star and Jermaine O'Neal enjoyed the last All-Star caliber season of his long career, but the Pacers enjoyed few bright spots that season. They missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years, only three years removed from an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The most important aspect of that team, though, had nothing to do with win-loss record. The 2006-07 season marked the beginning of the end of the group partly responsible for the ugly Pistons-Pacers brawl in Detroit on Nov. 19, 2004, which stained the league, the teams, the players and the fans for years.
The principle actors on the Pacers' side in the so-called "Malice at the Palace" were clearly no longer in the team's plans. Ron Artest was gone, having been sent to Sacramento for Predrag Stojakovic the previous summer. Stephen Jackson was limited to 37 games in his final season in Indianapolis. O'Neal, although his role in the brawl was more defensible, was traded to Toronto at the end of the following season.
Armstrong's appearance in 81 games was as strong a statement as any that the franchise's culture was changing. The one-time undrafted free agent out of Fayetteville State was a one-man example of how to do things the right way. The 6-foot guard was the leading scorer on that 1999-2000 Orlando Magic team Celtics fans often hear Doc Rivers wax nostalgic about, and despite not making it to the NBA until he was 26 years old, Armstrong lasted 14 seasons. Although he was always within a hair of being cut out of the league altogether, Armstrong had never been waived to that point of his career, although the Pacers ended that streak the following October.
Armstrong was part of the purge Larry Bird led in the wake of the infamous brawl. Armstrong, Mike Dunleavy and Marquis Daniels were not as talented as Artest, Jackson or O'Neal, but neither did they have the brawl blemishing their resumes. The "new" Pacers were not pristine citizens, but for the most part they were good teammates, possessed high character and could be counted on not to, say, rush into the stands if a fan threw a drink at them.
With Bird reportedly walking away from his post as Pacers president of basketball operations, he leaves the team in as strong a position as it has been since his tenure as an executive began in 2003. Indiana has the 26th pick in Thursday's NBA draft, when they conceivably could get the point guard they sorely need or another tough scoring guard to replace free agent George Hill. Assuming center Roy Hibbert re-signs, the Pacers could be the most likely team to threaten the defending champion Miami Heat next season.
But the Pacers were good in 2004, too, and could have been a Finals contender if the brawl had not wiped out their core for the bulk of the season. After the brawl, being good was not enough. Being good and playing the right way, Bird's hallmarks as a player, was what mattered — and 2006-07 showed that Bird was willing to take the latter at the expense of the former.
Bird, who resigned as coach shortly after leading the Pacers to the 2000 Finals, once again leaves while the Pacers are near the top. This team has its flaws — no clear go-to guy and self-defeating point guard play are the biggest ones — but there is little concern Hibbert or Granger will show up in the police blotter other than some minor nightclub tiff.
Bird finally found a way to combine the best of the 2004 team with the best of the 2007 team. Regardless of whether that proves to be championship material, it stands up as a satisfactory final product for one of the few people to find success on the court, on the bench and in the front office.
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