When it comes time for the fill-in-the-blank Finals MVP to raise the 2006 Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy in celebration of his team's outlasting 15 of the league's elite, be assured that the following will not be accounted for. Chauncey Billups and his stingy defensive squad will be gone till November 2007. Shaquille O'Neal and his new microwave offensive contingent would have already hit the cold showers. Tim Duncan and his color-by-numbers crew—with the addition of Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel—will surely be there . . . as spectators. Standing at center court, with unapologetic hate-us-now swagger, will be the Indiana Pacers, the league's new and improved bad boys. Ain't nothin' but a gangsta party, folks.

Why will this crew be partying on Market Street come June? For starters, there are certain parallels to a certain other team, if you look hard enough. A Central Division team that's never won a title. Consecutive playoff losses to the Detroit Pistons. An All-Star in his late 20s hoping to make that jump to the next level. A European star looking to make a name for himself in the L. And an all-world forward with questionable mental stability. Sure, the 2005 Indiana Pacers aren't exactly the Chicago Bulls of the '90s, but they can definitely relate.

Jermaine O'Neal, the Pacers' best player, is coming off a year that saw him miss 38 games due to suspension and a severely sprained shoulder. He came back for the playoffs, but was far from 100 percent. O'Neal turns 27 this season, his ninth in the League, and he's starving for a parade. Ron Artest, the Pacers' heart and soul, missed damn near the whole season (recall that little incident in Detroit). Ferocious, tenacious and borderline psychotic, it's Artest who locks up the opposing team's best player and chips in with 20 or so points (he was averaging a career-high 24.6 per when he got .86ed last year).