A long time ago in galaxy far, far away, Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh decided to trade worse for bad. The team was hemorrhaging fans who were unwilling to continue to tolerate the police-blotter inclusion of the teams’ players. This era was personified by Stephen Jackson, a key actor in the Malice at the Palace and the guy who let off gun rounds in a strip club parking lot.
The key decision came when they shipped Jackson’s toxic contract to Golden State for the toxic-for-other-reasons deals of Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy. That move locked them into a long-term position of salary cap inflexibility. With the millstone of those deals — plus Jamaal Tinsley and Jeff Foster’s contract — there was little opportunity for change. No teams wanted any part of those players and the Pacers lacked any significant young, cheap assets that every GM in the league covets.
So Bird just waited. And waited. And waited.
Flash forward to now.
When Larry Bird addressed the media this morning for the first time since the lockout ended as a GM swimming in cap space, what was his message? More patience. That is what he says will be the focus his team-building on over the next few weeks until the season opens on Christmas. “Just because you have a lot of cap space doesn’t mean you need to go out and spend $21 million,” said Bird. He continued: “We’re not going to spend all of our money right away … [But] in a short period of time, this team should be able to compete at a high level.”
Bird, and second-in-command David Morway, stressed that turning this team into one that can compete is not something they will — or perhaps even can — do over the next few weeks. It will take the next few years of good decision making.
While this approach may bore some Pacers fans, it should be seen as a breath of fresh air. Make no mistake: words mean nothing, actions do. So if Bird doesn’t do what he says and starts over-bidding on players from this middling free-agent class, none of what he said today will matter. But presuming his decisions align with his words, the approach is the correct one.
There isn’t a franchise-altering player in free agency. I love Marc Gasol, enjoy Nene, don’t dislike David West even though I think he will be overpaid, and have an irrational man-crush on Thaddeus Young. But those guys are all solid, helpful players — not, and apologies for the cliché, which I mean literally, game changers.
The trade market is a different beast since, theoretically, every player in the NBA, including Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo and Paul Millsap, could be moved. And Larry further expressed his interest in being involved in player swaps more so than free agency. He expects that he will increasingly be receiving calls from GMs looking to shed salary and “dump” a good player in his lap.
“Over the course of the next few weeks you’re going to hear a lot of rumors,” said Bird, who welcomes the opportunity to be a facilitator for any other team that needs help achieving its goals — especially if those include giving Indiana a bargain. “I think everyone in the league knows our position and what we’re trying to do … We talk about players every day.”
After the league resumes business (slated to occur on December 9), there will be a flurry of action. It’s almost certain that free agents will be signed on day one. And trades could be completed — and will be rumored — hourly. A GM without a plan could make snap decisions and set his franchise back years. Or, maybe worse, he could lock it into the “mediocrity treadmill,” as Pacers player personnel advisor Kevin Pritchard calls it, for the next decade. That is what Detroit GM Joe Dumars did when he splurged on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva a few summers ago. And now the Pistons look utterly hopeless.
Bird claims he won’t fall into that trap and instead hopes to emerge from the fracas with a few players that he truly covets. Or, worse case, he will come away with at least a few good bargains that can complement the current core players on the roster, a group that Bird stressed is still improving.
Then, he plans to do it all again next summer, when another $10 million or so leaves the team’s payroll and allows the Pacers to retain what Bird has continued to stress is his most valuable commodity: flexibility. The team has waited this long for the opportunity to regain relevancy. No need to throw it away over the next few weeks.