Larry Bird Offers an Encouraging Reminder

This FanHouse article about Larry Bird’s approach to this Summer doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t really know about the Pacers plans for the future, but it does give Pacers fans a calming reminder that “The Plan” remains safely on track.

For season after season now, the front office rhetoric from Conseco has focused on a slow, meticulous rebuild that would eventually allow the team to re-emerge from its abyss without ever having to truly reach rock bottom. Given the way the team turned off its fanbase by employing so many hooligans over the years — all while hemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars annually in operational costs — the team likely viewed tanking and bottoming out entirely for a top three pick that could single-handedly revive the team as incompatible with running a business. As we know, the costs the franchise have been facing were onerous enough that there have been realistic discussions about the team being forced out of Indiana (although all speculation has been put to rest — or at least delayed for another three years — now that the franchise and the city have come to terms on a mutually agreeable remedy to keep the Pacers in Conseco Fieldhouse).

But over the years, another potential way out has thankfully emerged. Through a combination of happenstance and calculated efforts, the Pacers managed to compile a roster where most all of the team’s high-salaried players were on contracts that expired at the same time. More specifically, they all expired in the Summer of 2011.

This meant that Indiana could not — and will not — be players in the much-ballyhooed 2010 free agency bonanza that we are now all completely sick of hearing about. (PLEASE SOMEBODY MAKE IT STOP.) But it does mean that, less than 12 months away from a day when more than $45 million in player contracts they hold come off the books, the Pacers now officially have some flexibility. This gives Indiana the chance to be the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls of next Summer.

Only Indianapolis isn’t South Beach. It’s not even the Windy City.

So the franchise will likely not just let all these contracts expire and try to entice players to come play for a middling team in the Midwest. They will likely let some of these deals expire and try to sign a few players next Summer, sure, but they will even more likely use some of these expiring deals as trading chips between now and February to get players that they think can help the franchise win basketball games — and Playoff series.

But even though they have several contracts to dangle and should have no trouble finding trading partners, they can’t just make moves — they must make the right moves. They can’t trade TJ Ford and Troy Murphy away for any other two players with contracts that last another three years. If the players they target turn out to be the wrong players then the whole situation will not improve much. The team will go from “middling mediocrity” to “slightly better middling mediocrity.”

They have been sitting on this plan, with these maturing assets — both fiscally, in terms of contracts nearing their completion, and on the court, in terms of Granger and Hibbert getting better — for years. And this is their one chance to improve. They can’t miss it. The front office is now like a jockey atop a horse in the middle of the pack biding his time to make a critical push to jump to the lead. Go too early or go to the wrong side and you’re not going to get ahead. But hit it right, and you have a chance to get to the front.

Rhetorically — and just from a purely logical business/franchise operational standpoint — this has long been the only option for the team. Bird has known it. Herb Simon has known it. Mike Wells has known it. And most fiscally aware Pacers fans have known it.

Thus, it’s good to see Bird reaffirm his commitment to this course and reassure Pacer fans that has no plans to do anything rash.

Yes, the Pacers are in line to have plenty of cap room next summer. But president Larry Bird said it’s not necessarily the case that they will make like some of the teams did this summer by having carved out every possible dime.

“We’ve never been in this to get way down and go after one player,” Bird (right) said in an interview with FanHouse at the Air Tran Orlando Pro Summer League. “We’re not that size of a market where we can absorb two maximum players. So we’ve got to pick and choose. We’ve got to wait our turn.”

He also added this:

“We’ve got a lot of expiring contracts,” said Bird, whose team has endured four straight losing seasons. “We’ve got a lot of teams out there that are interested in some of our players. So we’ll see what happens. Obviously, we’re looking for a point guard. Maybe we can get involved in one of these trades that will make us a little better next year.”

Bird said he wouldn’t hesitate now to give up cap room next season if it was a deal the Pacers liked.

“We can start right now,” Bird said of a trade.

Given the Pacers constant run of terrible fate in recent years, it’s no surprise that this whole plan is being strained by the looming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations between the NBA owner and players that need to be finalized next Summer to avoid a work stoppage. And from everything I have read and everyone in the know I have talked to, including salary cap expert Larry Coon, it’s more likely than not that there will be a lockout that will interrupt the start of next season.

While that’s unfortunate for Pacers — and the whole league, obviously — it does mean that making some trades now makes even more sense. For one, it ensures that the Pacers can lock in some long-term certainty about the roster. If they let all these contracts expire, and some entrenched lock-out leads to the whole season begin canceled, maybe some players bolt to Europe for a while and shrink the player pool of free agents available to sign outright. That’s crazy talk probably, but uncertainty is uncertainty and it’s not something any manager likes in any business.

Secondly — and more importantly — many owners, particularly those of non-contenders, are going to want to have as little salary on their books as they can going into the CBA negotiations. There won’t be an all-out salary dump going on league-wide or anything, but, all things being equal, it will be nice for teams in rebuild mode to start signing new players on the other side of the negotiations when salary terms are expected to be much more favorable for owners rather than retaining unwanted “legacy” contracts from a more fiscally careless era. (This high-quality-as-always Sam Amick piece also discusses a scenario where the negotiations lead to a “hard cap” that forces teams into cutting players. If something that drastic occurs, having fewer players on the roster that owner/GM doesn’t see as part of their long-term future will be desirable.)

Regardless of what the next CBA looks like, teams will likely be more willing to give up players on long-term deals this year than they normally are. And the Pacers are in a perfect position to capitalize.

And the best part?

Many of these “distressed assets” are not distressed at all. Guys like Al Jefferson and Ramon Sessions are reportedly already on the block in Minnesota. New Jersey is probably willing to part with Devin Harris. Tony Parker is rumored to be available. Andre Iguodala is likely attainable from Philly.

I’m not saying any of these specific names are the players the Pacers should go after. That’s for the front office to decide. (I might also weigh in before too much longer.) But the point is that the front office should have a wider-than-normal pool of players to go set their sights on. Hopefully, with some skillful maneuvering Larry will be able to target and acquire the exact players he think will help turn this half-decade of unbearable basketball around.

And much, much, much, much more importantly, hopefully the players that Larry targets will be the right players to help bring this franchise back to respectability.

Because the Pacers are now entering that critical, now-or-never home stretch.

Time to make your move, Larry.

horse race

Fitting, don’t you think, that the guy in Pacers blue and gold is in second to last place? Looks like that’s Dwyane Wade out in front, too.

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Tags: Larry Bird Three-Year Plan

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