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05-02-2003, 01:22 PM
What's next for Pacers, Bucks, T-Wolves and Suns?
By Chad Ford
NBA Insider
Send an Email to Chad Ford Friday, May 2
Updated: May 2
9:40 AM ET

Closure is a good thing when you're the one doing it.

But somehow that sense of fulfillment doesn't feel the same when someone slams the door in your face.

The Pacers, Bucks, T-Wolves and Suns have left the building. With the season now over, GMs like Donnie Walsh, Ernie Grunfeld, Kevin McHale and Bryan Colangelo must sift through the rubble to find out what went wrong, what's going right and what the future will hold for their team.

Luckily, Insider is already at the scene of the accident, sifting through the clues, looking for some answers ...

O'Neal, Isiah tied at the hip

It didn't take long for coach Isiah Thomas and his players to go on the offensive after Thursday night's blowout loss to the Celtics.

For the first time in this series, the Pacers showed the passion and feistiness that was the team's trademark early in the season. Unfortunately, this time the Pacers were strutting their stuff in the locker room, not on the court.

Thomas, who claimed at the start of the season the Pacers could no longer use their youth as an excuse, played the kiddie card when reporters began asking him what happened.

"Me, myself, to win 48 games in a season with the fifth-youngest team in the league," he told the Indianapolis Star, "and again we have one lottery pick on our team. I just think our guys did a hell of a job proving themselves. Of course, we're not a perfect team. We still have some flaws.

"But if you look at any of the four youngest teams in the league, they would take the wins that we had."

The players didn't have any real answers either as to what happened. But many of them, including Jermaine O'Neal, Al Harrington and Jamaal Tinsley, publicly praised Thomas and the rest of the coaching staff for a job well done.

The biggest show of support came from O'Neal, who went so far as to claim he'd only consider re-signing with the Pacers this summer if Isiah was coaching the team.

Jermaine O'Neal would likely leave Indiana if the Pacers let go of Isiah Thomas.
"I won't play for anyone else but Isiah," he said. "As long as I'm in an Indiana jersey, I want Isiah to be my coach."

While Walsh has insisted that Thomas' job is not in jeopardy, obviously the criticism of their coach from the media has bothered the players.

"This is still a learning process," O'Neal said. "Isiah's got a team competing at a high level with a lot of guys who hadn't played in the past. Isiah inherited a team that he didn't put together but he's winning with it. We've picked up his attitude and his demeanor and that's the way we play. People need to calm down and worry about supporting this team and not worry about a coaching change."

The Pacers are still confident that O'Neal has no intention of leaving this summer. They can pay him more than any team, he's close with his teammates and coach, and frankly, life is much easier for him in the East than it would be in the West.

O'Neal isn't the Pacers' only worry. Brad Miller is also an unrestricted free agent. If the Pacers give O'Neal the max, they'll have a difficult time paying Miller his value while staying under the luxury-tax threshold.

And then there's Reggie Miller, who played, by far, his worst playoff series ever. Miller averaged 9.2 points on 28 percent shooting for the six-game series and made just 4 of the 25 three-pointers.

Miller, who's been bothered by an ankle injury the entire season, will have surgery this summer to correct the problem. He has no intentions of retiring, meaning that he's yet another free agent the Pacers will have to figure out how to re-sign without causing some huge cap headaches.

"I've got to get my body healed up," he said. "I get to clean out both ankles, get back into the gym and get going. I'm excited about that."

Miller is loyal to the Pacers and wants to end his career there. Will he take a major pay cut to do it? If the answer is no, Walsh will have to get creative this summer. The team will continue to shop Austin Croshere and Ron Mercer around. Several teams have expressed interest in Croshere in the past, but most teams are going to shy away from his contract. Mercer may be more movable. He's contract expires after next season.

Is Milwaukee Payton's place?

Is Gary Payton as good as gone? That was one of the headlines in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel today. Payton, who played just 34 games for the Bucks, becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.

He's hinted since he was traded in February that he might bolt Milwaukee for a contender. With the Bucks ousted in the first round, is he going to turn his hints into reality?

"I've been in the league for 13 years, and I want to get back to where I was in '96 to get to a championship," Payton told the Journal Sentinel. "It's going to play a big factor. I'm going to take my time with it. And the right decision is going to be my last decision. Three weeks or four weeks will come, and I'll make it known where I want to be."

Payton said he believes he has four or five more years left in him.

"That's got to come in the summer," Payton said. "With my body, I don't get hurt too much, and I bless God for that. I'm not slowing down. I'm not missing games, and I'm still playing 40 minutes a night.

"I don't want to be in this game that long. I've got kids, and they're getting older, and I know they're getting tired of this basketball, too. But I do want to play about four or five more years, and hopefully that will be it for me."

Payton's wife and three children stayed in Seattle after the trade was made to keep the children in school. That means Payton wouldn't have to move them again if he decides to play somewhere else.

"I've got to weigh all my options, think about my wife, my kids," Payton said of his decision. "I don't want to keep moving them from city to city. I can't do that."

Coach George Karl and Grunfeld have said previously that they want Payton to re-sign with the team. Despite the Bucks' early ouster, Karl thinks the team is moving in the right direction with Payton.

"My feeling is we made two really good steps," Karl said of the February trade. "In general, our organization was fearful we would not have made the playoffs if we didn't make the move."

If Payton feels the same way, and signs a two- or three-year deal, look for the Bucks to try and trade their other point guard, Sam Cassell, and their first-round pick (likely the No. 8 pick they'll get from the Hawks if Atlanta doesn't get one of the top three picks). The combination of those two should help them land a solid post player who can bang the boards.

They don't need both Payton and Cassell in their backcourt and they feel that they have enough young players with Michael Redd, Desmond Mason, Tim Thomas, Marcus Haislip and Dan Gadzuric. What they need is a tough, P.J. Brown-type to give them some size and toughness up front.

If Payton does decide to bolt, the Bucks can either save the $12 million and get out of the luxury-tax threshold, or they could work out a sign-and-trade for a post player.

But does Payton really have anywhere else to go? San Antonio and Miami are the only teams with cap room that might be interested in Payton. Watching Tony Parker's struggles in the postseason could convince the Spurs that pairing Payton and Parker together in the backcourt would give them lots of insurance. And Pat Riley's obsession with avoiding rebuilding may drive him to add another veteran to the roster with his $7 million in cap space. The Heat need a point guard and Payton is definitely a Riley-type of player. Riley has pursued him in the past and he would be a good fit. Add another high lottery pick to the Heat and they could be a very dangerous team.

If the Spurs and Heat go in a different direction, Payton would have to decide whether he's willing to leave cash on the table in Milwaukee and take the mid-level exception somewhere else. Surely teams like the Lakers, Blazers, T-Wolves and Warriors (if they lose Gilbert Arenas) would love to get their hands on Payton this summer.

Will Gary leave as much as $5 million on the table to play with a real contender or to get closer to home? The Bucks can't do much until he gives them an answer.

Another early exit puts KG's future in doubt

The Timberwolves have eight free agents this summer. Kevin Garnett is not one of them. So why all the hand wringing in Minnesota?

Because the Wolves suffered their seventh straight round one playoff exit, this time at the hands of the Lakers, on Thursday. Garnett has a contract extension that's been sitting on the table forever.

He did everything he could for the Wolves in the playoffs, leading the team in scoring, rebounds, blocks and was second on his team in assists. Despite his unbelievable effort, he couldn't do it alone. With the exception of Troy Hudson, who came up very big, Garnett is a lone wolf, and with his huge contract, he's going to be one for a while.

"He's got to carry everything for so much at times," Wolves coach Flip Saunders told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "As the series progressed, they trapped him more and more and left it for our other players to beat them. When K.G. plays well, usually our other guys play well."

Wally Szczerbiak, who just signed a big contract extension, was horrible. He averaged 14.5 ppg and was generally passive in just about everything he did. Rasho Nesterovic, who becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, wasn't any better. His 7 ppg and 5 rpg made backup Marc Jackson look like a star.

Garnett refused to criticize anyone.

"I'm not the type of guy who is going to cry and whine," said Garnett. "I'm a soldier. I just go with who's with me and go to battle."

However, he did acknowledge that the future of the organization has never been in greater flux.

"We have eight free agents and I don't even think [general manager] Kevin McHale knows what's going to happen with this team," Garnett said about the Timberwolves' future. "We just have to try and take something from this."

McHale will have his hands full this summer. Garnett needs a better supporting cast and McHale has one summer to figure out how to do it. The draft probably won't help him. The Wolves have a rare first-round pick, but picking No. 26th probably isn't going to provide an impact player. The Wolves will have the full mid-level exception.

Could they lure Payton to Minnesota? He would give Garnett the type of savvy veteran he's lacked these years. The Wolves may also see if they can trade Terrell Brandon to a team looking for luxury-tax relief.

Brandon makes $11.1 million next season. However, he's expected to retire. If a team traded for Brandon this summer, his contract would come off the books in February. Insurance will pay 80 percent of his salary and none of his pay would end up counting for luxury-tax purposes because it comes off the books before the end of the season.

A team that is desperately trying to clear cap space may be inclined to swap a solid player like Eddie Jones, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Jalen Rose, Latrell Sprewell or Antonio Davis in return for the salary relief.

One way or another, McHale has to do something. If this team doesn't get a serious upgrade this summer, the KG trade watch will consume the team next season as the Wolves try to figure out how to get something in return for KG before he leaves them at the alter.

Suns future looks bright

Remember the old Sesame Street game, one of these things is not like the other?

Well the Suns are in a very different situation from the Pacers, Bucks and T-Wolves.

The team has the reigning Rookie of the Year, Amare Stoudemire; one of the best young point guards in the league, Stephon Marbury; solid veterans like Anfernee Hardaway and Bo Outlaw; and up-and-coming young players like Joe Johnson, Jake Tsakalidis and Casey Jacobsen.

No one thought the Suns had a shot to make the playoffs this season. Now, it looks like teams will have a hard time keeping them out for the next decade.

With the exception of finding a way to re-sign Scott Williams, the Suns don't have much to do this summer from a personnel perspective. They have a decent draft pick and their mid-level exception to play around with. But most of the summer will be used to divine lessons learned from this season.

Inexperience and health are the only things holding this team back at the moment. Losing Hardaway for much of the second half of the season hurt the team. With him, they were playing at a near elite level. Just ask Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

"They are very, very different from a (normal) No. 8 seed," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told the Arizona Republic. "We're thrilled to have beat them, and I'm very, very happy we don't have to play them again."

"I told our guys, I'm very proud of the effort they gave the organization, the coaching staff and each other," coach Frank Johnson said. "Of course, we'd have loved to have gone further. But we ran into a better team. If you look at the record, they're the best team in the league and we battled them very, very tough."

"We've got a lot to work on," rookie Amare Stoudemire told the Arizona Republic. "But we'll be back. I guarantee it."