Pacers have Bird's eyes on prize

Editor's Note: ESPN.com's 2004-05 NBA Preview concludes with a look at the "Contenders." Today the spotlight falls on the Indiana Pacers.

The Pistons have the title. The Spurs have the history. The Timberwolves have the MVP.

Indiana Pacers GM Larry Bird has a message for all of the folks out there waiting to hand the NBA championship trophy over to one of those three teams.

"I just don't get it," Bird told ESPN.com. "With all that we did last year and the improvements we made this year, I think we've got as good a shot as anyone."

Pacers president Donnie Walsh is singing the same tune.

"I think there are about six teams that have a legitimate shot at winning a championship," Walsh said. "We are in that group. Absolutely we're in that group."

In a recent survey of GMs by NBA.com, the Spurs and Pistons were the overwhelming favorites to win the NBA title this year. The Pacers garnered just seven percent of the vote.

The Pacers won a league-high 61 games last season. They challenged the World Champion Pistons in a brutal six-game Eastern Conference championship.

But, still, why should the Pacers be included in the same breath as the Spurs and Pistons? Walsh gets more specific.

"We have all the ingredients of a contender," Walsh said. "We have a great front court, a great head coach, veteran leadership and experience. I thought they almost all came together last season. This year the goal is to get over the last hump."

Indeed, the parts are there. They have a legitimate MVP candidate in Jermaine O'Neal. They also have the reigning defensive player of the year in Ron Artest. Rick Carlisle is a superior coach and their front office, lead by Walsh and Bird, is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, in the league.

And there's one other key ingredient: depth, thanks in part to two off-season moves.

"Over the course of an 82-game season, having plenty of depth gets more important to you," Bird said. "Injuries are going to happen. Sometimes it's just a matter of outlasting your opponent."

The Pacers traded away sixth man Al Harrington for Stephen Jackson this summer, bolstering their backcourt and opening up an opportunity for Jonathan Bender to get more meaningful minutes on the front line.

They see it as a one-for-two trade.

"Al was an important player on our team, but we had two big issues I felt we needed to address," Bird said. "First, we needed a scorer in the backcourt. Last year our backcourt ranked last in the league in points scored. Adding a 20 point a night scorer like Jackson back there was crucial.

"The other thing was that we had a pretty big logjam at the three and four. Al got most of those minutes and played well. But guys like Jon didn't get the minutes he probably deserved or needed to get better.

"With Al gone, that responsibility is going to fall on Jon's shoulders. He has the potential to be special. He's quick and long and can play both inside or out. If he can just stay healthy, he'll really help us this year."

The team is also raving about their rookie, big man David Harrison. Harrison had lottery talent, but slipped all the way to 29th in the draft when teams questioned his work ethic and dedication to the game.

So far the Pacers have been more than impressed with him.

"We haven't had a center that can do the things he does since Rik Smits," Walsh said. "He's been great both off and on the court. He's got that fantastic combination of size and athleticism and he really understands how to play. I think he could help us right now."

That's all well and good, but the Pacers still have to get by their division rivals the Pistons if they are going to make the Finals.

The Pistons have also made upgrades to their team. Adding Antonio McDyess and Carlos Delfino should make them a stronger team too.

But Bird thinks he knows how to beat the Pistons.

"You have to take good shots against the Pistons," Bird said. "Better shots than what we took last year. You need ball movement and an inside-outside game. Last year we didn't have enough guys capable of knocking down perimeter shots.

"You also have to make Richard Hamilton work on both ends of the floor. You know you're going to be chasing him every night on offense. The key there is -- and I don't know that you can totally stop him -- is to make him chase somebody else on defense to wear him out a bit. I think Stephen gives us a lift there."

Given the new playoff format, the showdown may happen sooner most people think it should. It's likely that if the two meet again in the playoffs, it will be the second round, not the Eastern Conference finals.

Either the Pistons or the Pacers should end up with the best record in the East. Whichever team falls short will slide all the way to a fourth seed in the East because the two other division champs get the other two top seeds.

Either way, Bird says he knows his Pacers will have to go through the Pistons at some point and he thinks he's built a team this year capable of defeating them, with a dimension that was missing before: playoff know-how.

"Experience will help us now too. The first couple of years we were too young. Last year was the first year this team made it out of the first round of the playoffs. The experience playing Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals was crucial. The Pistons got the same experience the year before when they were swept by the Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now we know what to expect. That's huge.

"The Pistons are the champs and you respect what they have accomplished. But we can compete with them. In fact, we can compete with them better than we did last year. To be the champs, you have to beat the champs."

Unloved and underrated, the Pacers may just have enough talent and confidence to get it done.

Chad Ford is ESPN's NBA Insider. You can find an archive of his columns here.