The Indiana Pacers are unique in being one of the forgotten four to come over from the ABA to the NBA in 1976, but as a result have a lot more history than people think. Folks remember the Spurs and Nets, and some remember the Nuggets being one of those teams as well, but few and far between include the Pacers on that list. However, though the Pacers weren’t a poor team in the ABA, their all-time starting five still comes solely from the NBA. Billy Knight and Don Buse deserve honorable mention, but in the end there’s not a ton of debate over who should be on this list.
PG: Mark Jackson
Nowadays, most know Jackson for his recent failed stint with the Warriors and his claim that Stephen Curry wasn’t MVP material, but as an Indiana Pacer, Mark Jackson is easily the best point guard in team history.
After spending the early part of his career with the Knicks and Clippers, Jackson landed a spot in Indiana via trade in the 1994-95 season and began to flourish immediately. In his first two years with the team he played in 163 out of 164 games, averaging 8.8 points and 7.6 assists while shooting around 45 percent from the field overall.
However, before the 1996-97 season began, Jackson was traded to Denver in a deal that landed the Pacers Jalen Rose, another star in his time with Indiana. The kicker, though, is that the trade was completely bogus for Indiana as the team plummeted near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Pacers GM Donnie Walsh, a familiar name and face for most Pacers fans, re-traded for Jackson just before the deadline. Though Indiana missed out on the playoffs, it was clear the return of Jackson was vital.
Jackson spent another three years helping the Pacers flourish alongside Reggie Miller and the Davis boys and helped them reach the 2000 NBA Finals, though they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games as part of the Kobe and Shaq three-peat. Jackson left after the loss for Toronto and didn’t return to the Pacers, but he remains an easy choice for their all-time starting five.
SG: Reggie Miller
A no-brainer, Reggie Miller is the greatest Indiana Pacer of all-time. A guy whose swagger and on-court presence rose over even his shooting ability, and whose dramatics and quarrels with the Knicks and John Starks go down as one of the greatest player vs. team rivalries in NBA history.
When Miller declared for the draft after leaving UCLA in 1987, the Pacers took him over longtime in-state player Steve Alford – a move that angered even the most passionate and understanding Pacers fans. After all, Alford was an Indiana man. He was born in Franklin, grew up in New Castle and played at New Castle Chrysler High School before playing at Indiana University. He won a national title and cemented his place as one of the greatest Hoosiers in basketball history. Miller, though, was determined to both make his case and leave his legacy – and that he did.
The five-time All-Star spent all 18 years of his NBA career in Indiana, and though he never won a ring nor got particularly close (the Lakers were always winning that series), he remains the greatest Pacer of all time. Miller received his first All-Star appearance in his third season and started in all 82 games for the Pacers that year, averaging 24.6 points, his best ever single-season average.
After a few more years of experience under his belt, Miller had an incredible consistent six years of basketball that featured four All-Star nods (’95, ’96, ’98, ’00) and a trip to the NBA Finals. He kept his scoring average consistently above 18 points per game and remained one of the league’s best three-point and free throw shooters, and though his numbers fell slightly as his career went on, Miller is currently second on the all-time list of three-point field goals made behind Ray Allen.
To some, it means nothing if you don’t win a ring in the span of your career, but ask guys like Karl Malone and John Stockton if they feel their careers were a success. They’d probably say yes. The same goes for Miller. He had his #31 retired by both Indiana and UCLA, is the all-time leading scorer in Pacers history and won a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Though the ring remained elusive, Miller is no question the greatest Indiana Pacer of all-time and is therefore a lock for the starting five.
SF: Paul George
This is where the debate sets in – can someone like Paul George really be considered for a place in the starting five after just five (really, four) years with the team when guys like Dale Davis, Danny Granger and Chuck Person are left off the list? Simply put, yes he can. George is already considered the future of the Indiana Pacers and isn’t likely to go anywhere for a long time, but as far as numbers goes, Paul is already one of the best to ever where the uniform in terms of playoff performances. He just hasn’t had enough game time in the regular season to generate the kinds of numbers others were able to.
PG13 is already a two-time NBA All-Star, was selected for the All-Defensive First Team in 2014, won the NBA Most Improved Player in 2013 and has been selected twice for the All-NBA Third Team, something Miller was able to do only three times in 18 seasons. His first two seasons he put up a meek 10 points per game, but has since seen that number jump to almost 20 points per game over the last two seasons (excluding his six appearances in 2014-15).
He’s already provided Indiana with some of the most exciting basketball the state has seen since the Miller era, and he took the Pacers within one game of an NBA Finals appearance. His freak injury at the USA camp in Las Vegas set him back for the duration of last season, but Pacers fans are eager to see what this new Paul George has in-store for the future. But this list isn’t based on the future, it’s based on the past – and it says something about both the Pacers and George that he’s able to make this list just five years into a long career.
PF: Jermaine O’Neal
Both a crowd favorite and an incredibly efficient power forward, Jermaine O’Neal gets the nod over Dale Davis as the best power forward in Indiana Pacers history. In terms of stats and honors, O’Neal is the clear favorite with six All-Star appearances compared to just one for Davis, with a Most Improved Player award, a one-time selection to the All-NBA Second Team and two-time selection to the All-NBA Third Team to boot. Davis was crucial during the Pacers teams of old, but O’Neal was a star in Indiana.
J.O. came straight out of high school and was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers, where he spent four seasons. The direct comparisons came when O’Neal was traded to the Pacers for Davis after the Pacers fell to Los Angeles in the NBA Finals that year. The Pacers had just lost Mark Jackson and head coach Larry Bird stepped down, leaving a lot of questions for the team moving forward. But O’Neal quickly proved his worth as an Indiana Pacer.
His first season with the Pacers, O’Neal played in 81 of 82 games and started 80 of those 81. He went from averaging 3.9 points in Portland to averaging 12.9 for Indiana, and he was just getting started. His first year he totaled averages of 12.9 points, 9.8 boards and 2.8 blocks, all while factoring himself in to a new setting. He followed up that year’s performance with six straight All-Star selections and averages of 20.4 points, 9.9 boards and 2.4 blocks.
In 2008, his career began to to decline and he was able to play less and less for Indiana. This prompted the Pacers to begin searching for trade options, and they finally found a landing spot one night before draft night. O’Neal was traded to the Toronto Raptors with a pick and another player in exchange for T.J. Ford, two other players and the 17th pick in the NBA Draft, which was Roy Hibbert.
Though he had his ups and downs in his playing career, O’Neal made himself a true hero to Pacers fans and an All-Star on the floor.
C: Rik Smits
When looking at the history of Pacers’ centers, there’s only one name that truly stands out: Rik Smits. Born in the Netherlands, Smits grew to an incredible 7’4 and found his way towards basketball around the age of 14. In 1984, he left his birthplace of Eindhoven for the United States, where he played basketball at Marist College. Four productive years later, the Indiana Pacers took him second overall in the 1988 NBA Draft.
Like Dale Davis, Smits’s career has to be defined by much more than just All-Star appearances and rings – as Smits has one total All-Star selection on his resume and zero championships as well. However, Smits’s productivity and physicality at the center position prompted Pacers fans to get used to the big man, and the way he slammed the ball home gave him the nickname “The Dunking Dutchman.”
Smits entered the team originally as a backup, but ended up starting 71 games his rookie year after a career-ending injury took away the Pacers’ first option at center in Steve Stipanovich. It took him a few years to really get into the league and make a significant impact, but his run of excellent performances started around the 1992-93 season and ended with an All-Star appearance in the 1997-98 season. During this span, Smits averaged 16.6 points and 6.6 boards while shooting just over 50 percent from the field.
Alongside Miller, Smits flourished as the No. 2 man in Indiana, and his versatility and mobility despite his size surprised many. However, Smits developed some issues with his feet, and after excellent runs leading up to his lone All-Star appearance, Smits was limited to just two years before retiring in 2000 after the Pacers’ loss in the NBA Finals.
Though the Pacers’ all-time five wouldn’t compete with the likes of Boston or L.A., they’d put up a fight in the Central Division and would be an awesome matchup against Detroit or Chicago. To date, the Indiana Pacers have had very few players who could actually make an all-time starting five, but it was still difficult to leave off players like Danny Granger, Dale Davis, Vern Fleming and a few others who have made significant contributions to the franchise. Regardless, Jackson, Miller, George, O’Neal and Smits made the cut and will likely hold their places for years to come.