Watching the Pacers the last four to five seasons has most likely made even the most optimistic of fans long for the days of Indiana Pacers past where 50+ win seasons, playoff miracles, and championship contenders were commonplace, not the dream.
As I often find myself in a pre-’01 Pacers trance, I tend to wonder, what Pacers’ team is the best team ever? If you could pick one Pacers team to matchup against any team in the finals, which team would it be? The difficulty in answering such a question is that there are so many variables to consider. Building criteria for the best team ever is a muddled mess: How do you quantify/qualify the ABA Pacers of yesteryear? Do you choose a team based on record-breaking regular season success? Do you choose a team based strictly on how far they advanced in the playoffs? Or, do you go in a different direction and lean towards entertainment value (I would have loved to see the Pacers’ version of Chuck Person on the finals’ stage)?
I don’t think there’s really a right or wrong way to go about it, and that’s what makes the exercise of picking “the best team” so fun. My pick is probably the obvious pick. The best Pacers team in my eyes will always be the ’97-’98 team. They had it all. They were veterans; they were winners; they were entertaining, and if not for No. 23, they were likely NBA champions. Here’s a quick look at the ’97-’98 team (as if any of you have forgotten):
Record: 58-24, good for 3rd playoff seed in the East
Common Starting lineup: PG – M. Jackson, SG – R. Miller, SF – Chris Mullin, PF – D. Davis, C – R. Smits
Key Benchmen: J. Rose, A. Davis, T. Best, D. McKey (the enigma before the enigma, Mr. Brandon Rush)
Regular Season Highlights: At the time, 58 wins was a franchise regular-season record (as an NBA franchise). Reggie was named to the All-NBA Third team. Larry Bird was named Coach of the Year. The Pacers went 30-7 after a 2-5 start. Resiliency: 13-5 in games with starters missing.
Playoff Highlights: Beat Shawn Kemp’s Cavs 3-1 in the first round…Waxed the Knicks in 5 (need I say more?)…Reggie’s Memorial Day miracle…Can you say seven games MJ?
What separates ’97-’98 from the rest:
It’s simple: Seven games. During the Bulls’ remarkable ’96-’98 three-peat only one team took them to seven games in a playoff series: Your ’97-’98 Indiana Pacers. Not only did the Pacers take them to seven, but as we all know, they even had a fourth-quarter lead that they let slip away. This was against the best player to ever play the game. This was against arguably the best coach to ever coach the game. This was against another surefire hall of famer (Pippen). No team challenged the best better.
Why not 2000? I loved this team. I even cried got emotional when Robert Horry and Kobe both hit heartbreaking shots in overtime of game four to put a 2-2 series tie out of reach. The truth was though, that it was near the end of the line for franchise faves Smits, Jackson, D. Davis. I’ll never forget feeling as though Shaq was getting to the line 40 times a game because the Pacers simply didn’t have anyone capable/young enough to offer any realistic resistance. And let’s be honest, the road to the NBA finals in 2000 was “Charmin” soft compared to the gauntlet of Eastern Conference playoff teams in 90s.
So, where do others stand? Is there a better team than ’97-’98? Anyone old enough dare make a case for the ABA era?
It sure would be fun to see the Pacers regain such lofty prominence in the league. It would be even more fun to see a personality like Big Roy play a large role in getting the franchise back there.