What This Season Means to ... Larry Bird

This is the first of our “What This Season Means to …” series. We expect the 2009-10 season to reveal a lot of things for a lot of people in the Pacers organization. It’s “show and prove” time for many. For more on what you can expect the series, check the intro post. Below, we kick things off by discussing the man with the three-year plan: Larry Joe Bird.

larry bird

Larry Bird has had a wildly successful life in basketball. There are but a handful who can match his success in a playing career that included both outstanding individual accolades (College Player of the Year, three-time MVP, multiple All-NBA and All-Defense awards, the Hall of Fame) and team accomplishments (three NBA titles, Olympic Gold). As a coach, he finished with a .687 regular season winning record, one NBA Finals appearance and three Eastern Conference Finals — in only coaching three seasons.

In the summer of 2003, he joined the Pacers’ front office as the heir apparent to Donnie Walsh. The first year was full of great promise, with a 61-win regular season record and yet another Conference Finals appearance.

Then the wheels came off.

In the six seasons since that 61-win year, the Pacers have had just one winning season, another at exactly .500 and four straight campaigns of not making the playoffs. Overall, Indiana has been 50 games under .500 and largely alienated the local community to the point that the franchise’s future in Indianapolis is far from a certain thing.

Bird’s sterling reputation in basketball has taken quite a beating. In fact, Bird was rated dead last Mike Prada’s ranking of all 30 NBA GM’s on SB Nation earlier this summer.

It has been quite a fall.

Pacers Walsh Basketball

The Two-Headed Monster

The first five years of Bird’s front office tenure with the Pacers were spent reporting to Donnie Walsh. Walsh, well regarded in the Pacer and NBA community for his job building the Pacers, was ostensibly Bird’s mentor, grooming Larry to take over when Walsh moved onward and upward (or Eastbound and down as it turned out when he eventually left for Madison Square Garden.)

During this time, Bird’s role was somewhat unclear to the outside world. At times, he seemed like little more than an apprentice, relegated to scouting Europe and other lower-level endeavors. Other times, he was put out in front of the organization.

Among the moves that have been arguably attributable to Bird include the following:

  • Firing Isiah Thomas
  • Hiring Rick Carlisle
  • Firing Rick Carlisle
  • Hiring Jim O’Brien
  • Signing Sarunas Jasikevicius
  • Most of the Draft, including David Harrison, Danny Granger, Shawne Williams, the James White trade, and the Stanko Barac trade

Early on, the Pacers went from contenders to pariahs in a period of minutes on November 19, 2004. There was that brief euphoria you get from really intense pain, but that ended with Reggie’s 31-points in a Game 6 loss to the Pistons. After that, Reggie retired, Artest demanded a trade, and some of the Pacers decided to unwind at a strip club during training camp.

Then this happened:

ReggieMiller-60

In January, 2007, the Pacers completed an eight-player deal with the Golden State Warriors. They accomplished their mission of unloading local outcast Stephen Jackson — but it came at a high price. In addition to throwing in Al Harrington, their “big” acquisition from the summer of 2006, they had to swallow two of the most onerous contracts in the entire NBA: those of Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy. If I were asked pick a single event to focus on for the Pacers during Bird’s tenure, it would be this one.

Why?

Well, it doesn’t have the cachet of the major events like The Brawl or any of the off-court peccadilloes, but it does speak volumes about the dysfunction in the front office of the Pacers from 2003 through 2008. During that time, Walsh and Bird formed a two-headed monster whose debris the Pacers are still trying to clean up.

The infamous “Murphleavy Trade” is an illustration of the confusion during this time frame. Publicly, it was difficult to see who was responsible for what decisions. It’s true that it is ultimately unimportant whether we, the public, understand how the front office works, but there seemed to be a little more going on than just the usual playing things close to the vest. There seemed to be no real direction. Considering that the trade added one year and $33 million to the Pacers’ salary cap hell , you would like to get to the sense that they know who is in charge, and where they’re going.

Unfortunately, for the five seasons that Walsh and Bird ran the team together, it was often impossible to tell who was responsible for what. Complicating matters was an apparent increase in influence from owner Herb Simon as the off-court debacles mounted. The Pacers — ownership and front office — failed to recognize the hard truths that they lost both their contender status and their identity when they agreed to grant Ron Artest’s trade demand. This failure led them to make moves that essentially kicked the can down the road: Artest for Peja, Peja for a giant trade exception, that giant trade exception and a first-round pick for Al Harrington and finally, the Murphleavy deal. Each one perpetuated the illusion that Indiana could still be a strong playoff team with Jermaine O’Neal as the foundation. Each dug their financial hole deeper.

Finally, in March of 2008, Donnie Walsh announced that he would be leaving the Pacers at year end, effectively handing Bird the reins to the franchise. The two-headed monster had been slayed.

At the time, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported that Herb and Mel Simon preferred to keep Donnie Walsh and fire Bird.

Walsh’s future with the Pacers also remains up in the air. According to a high-ranking Pacers official, the team’s co-owners, Herbert and Melvin Simon, are hoping to retain Walsh and fire team president Larry Bird. The same source indicated that Walsh has too much respect for Bird to fire him and then reassume full control of the team.

It’s unclear as to exactly who that “high-ranking Pacers official” was or how true that report is, but at this point, it’s moot. Walsh left. Bird took charge. He was joined by David Morway, who was promoted to general manager in May of 2008.

It didn’t take long for them to act.

Enter the Three-Year Plan

In June 2008, the Pacers made two major trades. The first marked a foundational change in the team by trading Jermaine O’Neal to Toronto for a package including TJ Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Maceo Baston and the #17 pick in the 2008 Draft. Dumping the roughly $44 million owed to JO over the final two years of his contract was the driving purpose, though they were also hoping to get some pieces that would help the future. How successful they were depends almost entirely on how Roy Hibbert turns out. (Stay tuned.)

Hibbert has shown promise, and there are high expectations for him this season. His viability as a foundation piece remains an open question, however. And while Nesterovic and Baston served their purpose as expiring contracts, Ford has largely been a failure as a possible answer at the point guard position.

The second deal was a draft-day trade that sent the #11 pick (Jerryd Bayless) and Ike Diogu (who never panned out as the low-post scorer some had hoped he could be for Indiana when he came over as a “sweetener” in the Murphleavy deal) to Portland in exchange for the #13 pick (Brandon Rush), Jarrett Jack, and Josh McRoberts. This was met with mixed reviews from fans, as Bayless had been projected to be picked as high as third in some mock draft previews and some fans thought getting him at #11 was a steal while taking Brandon Rush at #11 was a bit of a reach.

To this point, this trade has been something of a dud for both teams. Neither of the principles (Bayless and Rush) have accomplished much in their first two seasons. Rush has played more than twice as many minutes as Bayless, though that can easily be attributed to the fact that Portland is a much better team than the Pacers. It should also be noted that Bayless is only 22 years old (Rush is 25), and since both players are only entering their third NBA seasons, there is still opportunity for a good return.

Jarrett Jack played very well for the Pacers — so well, in fact, that he ended up pricing himself out of Indiana’s range and was lost to Toronto through free agency last summer. While there may be some lingering hope regarding Rush for the front office, it seems that Josh McRoberts might end up being the Pacers best long-term asset from the deal, as he appears to have the inside track on the starting PF slot this season.

These two deals marked the beginning of what is being called “The Three-Year Plan” by management. Although it has been broadly inferred that the Pacers would be a playoff team, and perhaps even a contender, at the end of this time, the statements from the team have been almost purposefully vague. The cynical way to say it is that the Three-Year Plan really meant that it would take three years to get out from under the ugly contracts, and there wasn’t a lot promised after that.

Treading Water

Bird and Morway followed the initial flurry of activity in the summer of 2008 with almost two years of what could be generously characterized as treading water. The most significant move between June 2008 and June 2010 was re-signing Danny Granger to a 5-year extension valued at between $60 and $65 million, depending on incentives. The team tried to unload troubled point guard Jamaal Tinsley, but the futile efforts ended in July of last year with a buy out.

The 2009 season matched the 2008 season’s 36-win total, but there did seem to be progress. The team was competitive early, but still entered January 2009 eleven games under .500. They played the rest of that season at just over .500, and rookies Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert were starting and producing for most of March and April.

Unfortunately, a change in the economic environment resulted in a slight decline in the salary cap. This took a great deal of flexibility away, and possibly cost the Pacers a chance to re-sign Jarrett Jack.  In any case, they entered the season with Earl Watson and Dahntay Jones replacing Jarrett Jack and Marquis Daniels. From there, injuries and reported chemistry problems led the team to play some of the worst basketball in franchise history.  Only a late-season surge kept things going completely off the rails (although this made a terrible season worse to many fans who were disappointed that some good play late led to a much lower draft pick).

The Pacers entered the summer of 2010 desperately looking for a point guard — a reality made even more desperate when somewhat-promising backup point AJ Price blew out his knee at a charity game. It seemed that they would need to use their #10 pick in the draft to get one. Unfortunately, this was a weak draft for point guards. A trade was expected, and numerous rumors surfaced. A deal with Oklahoma City for Eric Maynor, for instance, seemed like a possibility on draft day but did not materialize. It was reported that the Pacers could have dealt the #10 pick and TJ Ford to Oklahoma City in exchange for the #21 and #26 picks. While this would have cleared out the issue of Ford and his $8.5 million salary, it would have not addressed the point guard situation.

Regardless, the Pacers kept their pick and took Paul George. With their two second round draft picks, the Pacers selected Lance Stephenson and (after a trade) Magnum Rolle.

Though point guard remained a gaping hole, strong summer league performances by all three rookies was cause for some measure of optimism. But a point guard position manned by one player on the outs (TJ Ford) and another on crutches (AJ Price) was cause for some heartburn. Despite growing anxiety among fans, Bird sat patiently while targets like Jordan Farmar and Luke Ridnour signed elsewhere. Though Earl Watson (who started 52 games for the Pacers last season) was still available, he seemed to be looking to play for a contender. (He recently signed with Utah).

Darren Collison Comes to Town

On August 11, Bird’s patience paid off.

Darren Collison, who was widely considered an unattainable prize, became a Pacer. A four-team trade came like a bolt out of the blue, as the Pacers flipped Troy Murphy (to New Jersey) and got back Darren Collison and veteran James Posey. (New Jersey also sent Courtney Lee to Houston, and Houston sent Trevor Ariza to New Orleans.)

For a few days, it was all sunshine and rainbows for the Pacers and their fans.

Then, reality came crashing in as Lance Stephenson was arrested for alleged domestic violence, and the Pacers were notified that Brandon Rush would be suspended for the first five games of the season for failing a league drug test for the third time. For years now, every silver lining the Pacers have found has had a big, black cloud attached to it.

Even so, the Pacers entered training camp with more optimism than at any time in the last half decade.

(Before we move on to the future, here is a detailed list of all the Pacer transactions since Larry Bird joined the front office.)

What This Season Means to Larry Bird

The Pacers now enter the third year of the Three-Year Plan, and I seriously have to wonder if this might not be Larry Bird’s last year in the NBA. It’s not that I think Herb Simon will fire him. It’s a possibility, but it seems to me that the Herb will stay with the man he knows unless things just go disastrously wrong.

This is what Simon had to say in a preseason interview with Mike Wells.

Q: Larry, David [Morway] and coach Jim O’Brien are in the final years of their contracts. Do you have a number of wins necessary to bring them back?

Simon: I have not thought of anything other than getting through the season. Larry is a very independent guy. He’ll sit down with me at the end of the year, and I would love him to be involved in the franchise in some way. He’s going to be the one that will give me the direction on where we should go on the basketball side. I have a lot of faith and confidence in him.

If we continue to go in the right direction, I really believe the course Larry has put us on will be a course this city will be very happy with. He always told me it was going to be three years, we’re starting the third year. By the end of the year, he’ll know what he wants to do. I’m open to any suggestions.

Granted, it’s not the most specific of statements, but my interpretation would be that Bird will be the man deciding Bird’s future. I just honestly don’t know how interested he will be in carrying this forward.

Speculating on the future aside, this year, the team on the floor will be almost entirely of his creation.

Foster is the only player on the roster acquired before Bird joined the front office in 2003. Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy are the only holdovers from the days of the Two-Headed Monster. Of the remaining thirteen players currently on the roster, seven (Brandon Rush, Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough, AJ Price, Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Magnum Rolle) have been drafted by Bird over the last two seasons. Four others (TJ Ford, Josh McRoberts, Darren Collison and James Posey) were acquired in trades engineered by Bird. The final two (Dahtnay Jones and Solomon Jones) were signed as free agents by Bird.

Though Jim O’Brien was hired in the last year of the Two-Headed Monster, he seems to pretty clearly be Bird’s coach — at least for this year. The style is largely Bird’s. O’Brien and Bird may not be in complete lockstep in terms of certain specific tactics, but both like aggressive, attacking teams. That’s not to say that Obie’s job is safe beyond this year is safe by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t know exactly what to expect if Bird does elect to let O’Brien go after the season, but I would not be surprised to see the new coach be a another aggressive guy.

So I think it’s no exaggeration to say that this upcoming season will likely decide Larry Bird’s future for him. Barring a miracle, this team won’t be a contender, and there is a really good chance they will not even make the playoffs.

But we should have a good idea of the answer to three questions by the end of the season:

  • Can Danny Granger be “The Guy”?
  • Is Darren Collison the long-term answer at the point?
  • Can Roy Hibbert be a high-level starting center and offensive focal point in this league

If the answer to these three things are “yes,” then the Pacers are on their way to a better place.

They will have a solid foundation just as they get out from under the contracts that have smothered them for the last few years. In this case, it seems almost certain that Bird would stay and try to finish the job. What “finishing” the job means in a post-Decision NBA is somewhat difficult to say, but I would think that Bird would want to keep the reins in hopes of at least challenging Miami in the East within the next couple of years.

If the answer to these things is “no, no and no” then I would expect Bird to step away.

It seems to me that he’s achieved his baseline goal of leaving the team in decent condition for his replacement. In this case, “decent condition” would mean have a relatively small payroll and a collection of decent young role players that the next guy (or lady) could leverage to remold the team with his (or her) own vision.

If — as is most likely — the answers are a somewhat-inconclusive mixed bag then Bird’s future would depend on other factors. What was the tone of the season? How is the team being received in the community? What is the lockout/CBA situation? How has the Lance Stephenson issue resolved itself? Have there been any other embarrassing off-court issues? What is the coaching situation? How are “his” young guys (Hansbrough, Price, George, Stephenson, Rolle) doing?

Bird has set the stage for this season, and now he must wait and see the result of his decisions.

Roy Hibbert

It’s up to these guys to keep the promise, and decide a Legend’s future.

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