Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird is not sure his team could have won a championship this season even with Ron Artest.
But he's almost positive they won't win next year unless Jermaine O'Neal takes his game to another level.
"We have to get better," Bird said Tuesday in his season-in-review news conference. "Even if Ron played all year, I don't know if we would have been a championship team. We would have been a heck of a lot better.
"Will we make a lot of changes? I don't know. I think it all depends on Jermaine O'Neal. I'll put the pressure right on him. If he comes back in great shape, and he has Ronnie on his side and he's got Stephen Jackson, and Jamaal Tinsley does the things he needs to do in the summer, we'll be all right. We do have to get better in certain areas."
O'Neal has spent the past five seasons watching and learning from Reggie Miller, who retired after the Pacers were eliminated from the playoffs by the Detroit Pistons. Now Bird wants O'Neal to show he's worth the seven-year, $126 million contract he signed in the summer of 2003.
O'Neal was limited to 44 games this season because of his post-Nov. 19 brawl suspension and a sprained right shoulder in March.
He returned for the playoffs but wasn't the same player who finished third in MVP voting a year ago. Bird said he recently talked with team trainer David Craig, and the MRI done on O'Neal's shoulder late last week revealed that the All-Star forward is making progress.
"We'll find out right away whether he can handle it or not," Bird said. "If he can't handle it, we'll have to find somebody else. But I'm very confident that Jermaine, every year, matures more and more. Some players like that pressure. Some can't handle it. I really feel Jermaine can handle it. If he can, we'll be better from it."
Bird touched on a wide range of other topics Tuesday, including the makeup of the roster.
The Pacers aren't expected to be too active in free agency. Bird said they have areas they need to shore up, but he declined to go into details. They have 13 players under contract for next season.
The Pacers have the 17th pick in next month's draft. Their primary needs are at shooting guard or point guard if Tinsley's injuries persist.
Signing a marquee free agent appears unlikely. The Pacers are over the salary cap but have the midlevel exception, which was $4.9 million last season.
Bird didn't rule out trading any player, including Artest and O'Neal. Tinsley and reserve center Scot Pollard are the most likely to be discussed in trade talks this summer.
"Right now, (it looks like) they're all going to be here," Bird said. "But you never know what's going to happen. If you can make a deal that you think can make your team better, you have to make it. But I'm not out soliciting my guys at all."