Bird to Blame for Pacers Rebuild
There is great fascination with Larry Bird and his body of work in the game basketball. This fascination with Bird, particularly in Indiana, has enabled him to hold a legendary status in the Hoosier state. Criticism of Bird seems to carry blasphemous undertones with basketball being a religion in some parts of Indiana. So before criticism can be placed on Bird and his handling of the Indiana Pacers, let's give Bird some praise. It's not too far fetched to assume that without Bird and Magic Johnson, the NBA may not even be here for fans to enjoy each year. They each deserve credit for saving the NBA in the 1980's and being the league's answer to a major decline in ticket sales. Their rivalry provided a much needed storyline that sparked classic battles.
Their feud was competitive like any worthwhile sports story. But it also had cultural, geographical, and racial aspects to it unlike any storyline ever seen before or after it. Their rivalry is also what ultimately paved the way for increased television ratings with the NBA. Their work to initially increase television ratings and revenue is one of the main causes for the rise in players salaries over recent years. So, highly paid players like Gordon Heyward and Mike Conley Jr., both Indiana natives much like Larry, can thank him and Magic for their paychecks. Therefore, Bird and his nickname Larry Legend is appropriate considering his impact as the only person in NBA history to be named Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year.
However, Bird needs to shoulder most of the blame for this looming rebuild in Indiana instead of Paul George. Bird as Pacers President of Basketball Operations made Indiana into a competitor, but his moves or lack thereof in the final stages of his tenure have put the Pacers in the rebuilding phase for the foreseeable future. While Bird may not have the title President of Basketball Operations anymore, he remains with the team as a consultant to this day. The Pacers ultimately need to cut ties entirely with Bird to avoid being held hostage by his legendary status and the major influence that comes with it.
The first bit of blame that should be placed on Bird is the coaching moves he made during his tenure as President of Basketball Operations. Bird fired head coach Frank Vogel after the 2015-2016 season and replaced him with associate head coach Nate McMillan. The reasoning for the firing was that the Pacers needed a new voice. If the Pacers needed a new voice, why would Larry hire from within? The move to fire Vogel in favor of McMillan has yet to pan out for Bird and the Pacers.
The Pacers ended up winning 3 less games from the year before going from (45-37) under Vogel to (42-40) under McMillan. Indiana did shoot a better percentage and scored more points as a team under McMillan. But the Pacers on average allowed more points on defense than they scored under McMillan. Vogel coached the Pacers in back to back Eastern Conference Finals appearances taking a LeBron James led Miami Heat team to Game 7 in both years. McMillan was swept by LeBron James and Cleveland in his only series as Pacers head coach, in the first round of last year’s playoffs. Game 3 of last year's playoffs was McMillan's worst display of coaching when the Pacers allowed Cleveland to squander a 25-point halftime lead. The comeback was the third largest lead ever given up in league playoff history losing 119-114 to fall behind 3-0 in that series. This collapse was not the worst for McMillan. In fact, he contributed the worst collapse in NBA playoff history. McMillan playing for Seattle, saw a 29-point deficit blown in 1989 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Bird also deserves blame for the personnel moves he made as President of Basketball Operations. Bird traded the rights to small forward Kawhi Leonard for point guard George Hill with the Spurs. While George Hill was a key contributor to the Pacers and their playoff runs, in hindsight, the Pacers gave up rights to a player that is as solid as they come on both ends of the floor. Leonard now is arguably a top five, surely top ten player in the league being considered an MVP candidate for most of last season.
Bird also signed Andrew Bynum. Now, at the time, this move made sense. With Miami being the main threat to the Pacers in the East, it made sense to snatch Bynum up before Miami could instead. But at that point Bynum was damaged goods with a series of knee injuries that derailed his career. Bird signed Bynum despite that he never played in Philadelphia with the 76ers after being traded there from the Lakers. Bird also signed this player knowing he had only played 24 games with Cleveland, before the Cavs cut their losses with him. Despite all of this baggage, Bird only saw 2 games out of Bynum with Indiana before he was shut down again for injuries.
The biggest failure for Bird as an executive though was when it came to pleasing his best asset in Paul George. PG had indicated he wanted out of Indiana through subtle resentment toward Bird long before it was officially announced. The first indication that should have worried Bird about PG staying in Indiana was George's reluctance to move to the power forward spot full-time. This suggestion of moving PG to the power forward spot was encouraged by Bird. Bird was quoted by local media about the move saying "he (George) don't make decisions around here." This quote should describe who Bird was as an executive, an arrogant and controlling presence where only his opinion counts with the organization. The final straw for George though was Bird's inability to surround him with contributing talent.
George wasn't thrilled that Bird let David West and George Hill go to build a team Larry favored that could push the pace offensively. West compensated for George's lack of leadership as the emotional engine to those playoff teams. Let's not forget that David West left $11 million on the table to chase rings with San Antonio. Let's face it, without West there, PG was forced to be a leader, something he never excelled at with the Pacers. While Jeff Teague is a talented player in his own right and a hometown hero much like Hill, he wasn’t as effective from three point range and was not nearly as physical or versatile a defender.
Let's consider that when Hill was matched up with Golden State's Stephen Curry, Curry only shot 46 percent from the field and just 20 percent from three point range. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, shot 41 percent from the field when defended by Hill, which was below his season average of 45 percent. Despite giving up Hill, Bird also failed to keep Teague at the end of the season. Teague is now in Minnesota with one the NBA's up and coming rosters. Bird let not just one, but two talented point guards go, failing to get adequate value in return for them at the appropriate time. Finally, let's not forget that Bird overpaid for both Al Jefferson and Monte Ellis. Jefferson was an overweight player past his prime, broken down by nagging injuries, missing 22 games last season. Ellis while a player who hustled, had inconsistent play and ultimately lost his starting spot down the stretch of last year. Finally, Ellis will miss the first five games of next season due to off the court issues with marijuana if he signs with another team.
So for those that were shocked by George leaving, it is clear PG wanted out of Indiana way before it was made official by the media just days before this year's draft. By announcing his intentions to sign with the Lakers as a free agent after next season, George lessened the leverage Indiana had in any deal. But Bird didn't make George's time in Indiana any less complicated with his overbearing influence. In fact, George's timing could have been some form of payback for the way Bird treated him over the years.
With their hands tied, the Pacers had a few choices on how to handle PG. The first option was to let PG play out his deal with Indiana and lose him in free agency for nothing. This would be similar to what happened with OKC and Kevin Durant. The second option was to trade PG to the Lakers. But since George has already made his intentions clear that he wants to sign with them anyway after next year, they wouldn't offer much to the Pacers. The third option was to trade PG to an entirely different team. The Pacers would be forced to take a sub par deal because the trading partner is essentially agreeing to a one year rental from Indiana. The Pacers reluctantly took option number three, trading PG for only two pieces.
The Pacers agreed to send George to Oklahoma City for shooting guard Victor Oladipo and project power forward Domantas Sabonis. The deal was a thin one and did not include any draft picks or cash to let Indiana build for the future. Now, Oladipo is a gifted athlete and playmaker. He averaged a respectable 15.9 points 4.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game last season. Oladipo will also be a fan favorite having been a star at Indiana University prior to being drafted by Orlando with the second overall pick in 2013. Domantas Sabonis could also emerge as a star, but it will take a few years to develop his skills. His stats from last year aren't staggering having averaged just 5.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.0 assist per game in 81 appearances. This unbalanced trade falls squarely on the shoulders of Larry Bird for not acting quickly enough when the writing was clearly on the wall with Paul George.
The worst part of Bird and his handling of the Pacers was the end of his tenure as President of Basketball Operations. Bird conveniently resigned as President of Basketball Operations one month before George made his intentions clear that he would leave the Pacers in free agency if he wasn’t traded.
So instead of taking the blame for the PG debacle, Bird tried to deflect the blame of losing PG on the new President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. But Bird and the power hungry person he is still remains with the Pacers as a consultant to this day. Through a consultant role with the Pacers, Bird can have the influence he wants, without taking the heat for any mistakes.
This massive influence was on full display at the 2017 NBA Draft. With Bird still in the building and influencing transactions, the Pacers failed to land a better deal for PG at the draft, a perfect time to trade players. There was a reported deal that would have sent Paul George to the Cavaliers, Kevin Love to the Nuggets and Gary Harris to Indiana.
This return might not sound as great, but it would have likely included draft picks. Harris is also far less expensive for the Pacers salary wise than Oladipo with Victor poised to make over $20 million this year with Indiana. The Celtics reportedly offered three first-round picks and two starters (presumably Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley) in exchange for George. The Pacers with this deal would have gotten far better value with future prospects and immediate help from Crowder and Bradley. Bird's lack of moves to keep Paul George happy and then oblivious attitude to trade him has put the Pacers into full rebuilding mode. In fact, Bird's moves have set Indiana back probably 5-7 years from deep playoff contention, even in the weak Eastern Conference.
Larry Bird was a tremendous player, proven coach and even executive for a short period of time. Hell, without Bird the NBA may not even be here. But the Pacers need to cut the cord with Larry Legend to get better in the long run. Pacers owner Herb Simon, despite his immense admiration for Bird needs to let him go to give Kevin Pritchard a fair shot at running this team. Pritchard can build a winning team and culture in Indiana. But Bird's overbearing influence may hold the franchise hostage moving forward if something is not done soon.
Jimmy Kennedy, who thinks the Pacers need to cut ties with Larry Bird entirely, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org