The Indiana Pacers were one of the ABA’s best franchises, winning three championships in 1970, ’71, and ’73 while also making the ABA Finals in 1969 and 1975.
Indeed, if ABA seasons counted, 1970 (when they went 59-25 in the ABA’s 84-game regular season on their way to that first title) would be easily the franchise’s best season.
But we’re talking NBA history here, and that means that the Pacers must instead rely upon their history in the modern league—a history that got off to a terrible start, with Indiana making the playoffs just once between 1977 and 1986.
But as all things in this world eventually tie together around a common theme, so too does Pacers history, as with the 11th pick in 1987 and the 2nd pick in 1988, Indiana got Reggie Miller and Rik Smits, two men who would become the core of an Indiana team that was a constant thorn in the side of the New York Knicks in the 1990s and would, after Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls finally wound down their dynasty, get their own shot at the championship round in 2000.
Unfortunately, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant had other ideas about that particular ring, as they would for the next two championships, but it was the high-water mark for Reggie’s career and for the Pacers as a franchise.
Let’s take a deeper dive into Indiana’s best NBA season and see what made them special.
The On-Court Record
The 56-26 record the Pacers put up in 2000 is one of the franchise’s best in NBA history. They went 61-21 in 2004, 58-24 in 1998, and matched that 56-26 mark again in 2014, making the conference finals all three times before bowing out. They even took His Airness to a Game 7 in the ’98 ECF.
That record was good enough for best in the East, powered by the best offense (a 108.5 Offensive Rating) in the entire league. When your offense is that good, you don’t need a great defense to win a lot of regular-season games. You need only be competent, and at 13th out of 29 teams, the Pacers’ defense led to a plus-4.9 (sixth in the league) Net Rating that was best in the East.
You’re reading that right. Five Western Conference teams were better than the Pacers in terms of Net Rating that year—in order, the Lakers, Trail Blazers, Spurs, Suns, and Jazz.
If anyone forgets just how trash the East was after 1998 and before the East’s revival that started with Detroit in 2004, that ought to demonstrate it well enough!
Indiana did, however, struggle in the playoffs; the 8 seed Bucks took them five games in the still-at-the-time best-of-5 first round, Indiana winning two games by just one possession (88-85 in Game 1 and 96-95 in Game 5, both at home). Philadelphia, not quite ready for prime time, took Indiana six games to dispatch, while the Knicks also took them six, although that series wasn’t as close as the series length implies. New York won their two games—Game 3 and Game 4—at home by just one possession, while Indiana’s four wins were by an average of 10 points.
And let’s face it. Taking Shaq and Kobe to six games in the Finals was an accomplishment in itself. There are no moral victories, but a year later the Lakers would unleash their true form, with only a single “Allen Iverson played out of his mind” game—the infamous Game 1 in which Iverson stepped over Tyronn Lue in a game in which AI scored 48 points—stopping the Lakers from running the table and going 15-0.
Speaking of “a year later”, Indiana went 41-41 in 2001, a 15-game dropoff, and got bounced in the first round in 2001, ’02, and ’03 before returning to the conference final in ’04 and finally ignominiously closing the door on Miller’s career in the Malice in the Palace season in ’05.
Those three first-round exits? All coached by Isiah Thomas. Indiana did Reggie dirty. If they’d hired Rick Carlisle sooner, or if Larry Bird had hung around—more on him later—they might’ve been able to win a ring.
The Featured Players
Besides Reggie, of course, the 2000 Pacers were a collection of veterans—the average age of the team was 30.4 years, making them the third-oldest team in the league behind Utah and San Antonio, two other ’90s stalwarts still making noise at the turn of the millennium.
Fans of the ’90s Pacers teams can instantly recognize their starting lineup of Mark Jackson (age 34), Miller (34), Jalen Rose (27), Dale Davis (30), and Smits (33).
Indiana also had a bench featuring former Seattle SuperSonics Sam Perkins (38) and Derrick McKey (33) plus a way-past-his-prime Chris Mullin (36) who would retire the following year as a member of the Warriors, where his career began.
That’s not to say the Pacers were all guys halfway to a Social Security check. This was the debut season of 19-year-old Jonathan Bender, picked fifth in the ’99 draft by Toronto and traded after the lockout-shortened ’99 season in which Bender never played a game to Indiana for Antonio Davis (aged 31 and another familiar face to Pacers fans of the ’90s.)
Indiana also had a 19-year-old Al Harrington, 24-year-old sixth man Austin Croshere, and 23-year-old Jeff Foster. Harrington would be traded in the 2004 offseason for Stephen Jackson, who infamously incited Ron Artest during the Detroit melee in November; one wonders how things would have gone had Harrington been there instead.
This Pacers team had great injury luck—all five principal starters played at least 74 games—and only needed six guys to start at least 10 games (Croshere started 14) and eight to play 1,000 minutes.
And that combination of short rotation and continuity got them all the way to Game 6 of the Finals before the carriage turned into a pumpkin on them.
Larry Bird, for all the talk of him as a coach killer in his playing days and as an executive (just ask Frank Vogel), at least practiced what he preached when he said coaches shouldn’t hang around more than three years.
The 2000 season was Bird’s third on the sideline and would be his last; he has to this day never returned to coaching and stands with an impressive 147-67 regular-season and 32-20 playoff record from his three-year stint.
I mentioned above that Thomas took over and ran the Pacers into the ground, and I meant it—it’s hard to blame anyone but Isiah for the fact that they went 56-26 and made the Finals the year before he arrived and went 61-21, the best mark in franchise history, and fell only to the eventual champion Pistons in the conference finals the year after Thomas left.
The roster was largely the same throughout that run, so one must conclude that Bird, who posted the best-at-the-time record in franchise history the year he arrived and did no worse than the conference finals all three of his years as coach, had a lot to do with the team’s success, the best three-year run the Pacers have ever enjoyed and possibly will ever enjoy as long as the current regime continues in the Indiana front office (yes, disgruntled Pacers fan venting, deal with it.)
You can’t just say it was a weak East and having Reggie Miller that made Bird so successful; if that were so, a bowl of oatmeal could’ve at least gotten Indiana out of the first round in the next three seasons. As it stood, the coach they had after Bird left was worse than breakfast cereal on the sideline.
Proper pride of place must be given to the ABA Pacers; even though those years don’t count for this series, winning three ABA titles, most in the league’s nine-season history (the New York Nets won two; nobody else won more than one), does count for something. To this day, Indiana’s second-leading player in terms of Win Shares is Roger Brown with 63.5. Miller retired with 174.4, to give you an idea of just how wide the gap is in Pacers history between Reggie and everyone else.
Other than that? If the 2014 team hadn’t imploded before the playoffs even started, making Evan Turner a hated figure among Pacers fans, they might’ve done enough to get on this list, maybe even won the title.
And had the Pacers managed to get by Shaq and the Orlando Magic in 1995, even though their 52-30 record wasn’t as good as the 2000 team, Reggie’s “8 points, 9 seconds” game would’ve been too good to resist for storytelling purposes, the season by far more memorable for Pacers fans in the grand historical scheme.
But really, it’s just the ABA glory years and one trip to the NBA Finals for this perpetual mediocrity machine of a franchise. Gods know why I still root for this team…
NEXT: Los Angeles Clippers. Hooooooo boy. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!
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