Larry Bird stepped down as Pacers President of Basketball Operations on Friday, and while he undoubtedly did good things for the franchise, his decision probably is best for Indiana.
Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird has spoken on several occasions about his franchise needing to hear a new voice. It seems to be a core belief of Bird's that NBA team leaders' messages only resonate for brief multiyear stretches of time.
Bird used those words in 2011 when contemplating stepping down from his position for the first time; he eventually did so in the summer of 2012 and took a year off before returning to the Pacers for the 2013-14 season. He utilized the phrase as his primary rationale for parting ways with coach Frank Vogel after the 2015-16 season, a decision that has backfired and not improved the Pacers in any discernible way.
And now, coming off a disappointing 2016-17 season that saw the Pacers barely secure the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and get swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and entering an offseason rife with uncertainty about Paul George's future with the franchise, Bird must think his own voice has run its course again.
Bird stepped down as Pacers President on Friday, making way for GM Kevin Pritchard to assume full control of basketball operations, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski first reported. Bird likely will stay close to the franchise as a consultant, much like Donnie Walsh has done since Bird returned to the Pacers from his one-year sabbatical.
It's unclear at the moment why Bird made this decision when he did; perhaps he will explain that Monday during his scheduled end-of-season press conference. The timing certainly has people attempting to put two and two together and wondering whether Bird has an insight to George's long-term plans. After all, if George truly wanted to leave Indiana and ultimately did so, either as a free agent in the summer of 2018 or via trade before that, the Pacers surely would be looking at another rebuilding project for (at least) multiple seasons. Would Bird, now 60 years old, want to head up another rebuild after he already oversaw a slow and often painful reclamation project during the post-Brawl years? Conventional wisdom says he likely wouldn't. Bird very well might think it best to leave such an arduous task to Pritchard, who surely has the energy and enthusiasm to run his own front office again seven years after his departure from Portland.
Or maybe Bird has no idea what George plans to do and simply is tired of doing the job. He first stepped down as Pacers President in 2012, right as the team was becoming competitive and getting ready to play in consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, to address his health. It could be that Bird came back the following summer with the plan that this current stint always would be a short one, one that hopefully would include a Finals appearance or a championship and yield the fruits of his rebuilding labor, and he would ride off into the sunset in relatively short order. Again, this is pure speculation, and Bird could offer a better idea as to his rationale for stepping down Monday.
As for where Bird's decision leaves the Pacers, it's a case of two seemingly contradicting statements being true: Bird leaves behind a mostly favorable body of work as head of the franchise's basketball operations, but this change also could be good for the Pacers.
Bird did a remarkable job pulling the Pacers out of post-Brawl irrelevance and into contention in the Eastern Conference for multiple seasons. For the most part, he drafted well, landing Danny Granger at the No. 17 pick in the 2005 draft, Roy Hibbert at No. 17 in 2008, Paul George at No. 10 (and Lance Stephenson in the second round) in 2010, and Myles Turner at No. 11 in 2015. He was able to lure David West, a big-name free agent, to a market that doesn't attract big-name free agents (granted, West was a unique case, but still). The roster he assembled, coupled with Vogel's smash-mouth philosophy, emerged as the biggest intraconference threat to the LeBron James- and Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat.
However, Bird has not been without his flaws as president, both during the Pacers' most competitive seasons and in the years after them. Multiple decisions could have made those teams' ceilings higher. Bird could have drafted any of a number of talented point guards in the 2009 draft, including Jeff Teague, Ty Lawson, and Darren Collison (all of whom eventually played for the Pacers), but instead selected Tyler Hansbrough, who had his moments and aggressive offensive rebounding but too often was a ball-stopper and ultimately wound up in the NBA Development League. On draft night in 2011, he traded the rights to Kawhi Leonard to San Antonio to acquire George Hill. While Hill was good for the Pacers, Leonard has emerged as one of the best two-way players in the NBA. Granted, Leonard has exceeded just about everyone's expectations, and it's fair to wonder if San Antonio's environment played a factor in his astronomical rise, but in the end, the trade ultimately looks like a negative for the Pacers.
Bird's vision for remaking the roster after the conference finals seasons, though, has been his biggest flop of late. Looking to depart from Vogel's traditional, defense-oriented style of play to enhance the Pacers' speed and scoring, Bird openly shared his plans for Paul George to play the power forward position, something George himself openly disapproved of in return. Bird also created too much redundancy at the guard positions -- with ball-dominant guards who couldn't shoot well (Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey chief among them). When Vogel saw the new style wasn't working effectively, he reverted to a traditional lineup, which won the Pacers more games but likely caused Vogel to permanently fall out of favor with Bird. Bird opted not to renew Vogel's contract following the 2015-16 season, citing the needs for players to hear a new voice and for the team to play faster and score more points, but then promoted associate head coach Nate McMillan, who had been with the Pacers for three seasons before then and whose teams in Seattle and Portland were consistently slow in terms of offensive pace. Ultimately, Bird's plan left the Pacers with a flawed roster, a downgrade at head coach, and an overall downward trend, which is why his decision to leave the team might be coming at the right time.
Pritchard will have quite a task on his hands, regardless of whether George stays or goes. He gained notoriety in Portland as an aggressive dealer, shaking up draft nights with trades and constantly shaking up the roster. He'll need to do that this summer, either by finding a way to unload bad contracts such as those of Monta Ellis and Al Jefferson to bring in better help for George or by securing a great package of young talent and high draft picks in return for George. Perhaps it's a credit to Bird, leaving the franchise in the hands of a seasoned front-office man who is tailor-made to handle an offseason like the one facing Indiana.
While the time is probably right for new leadership in the Pacers' front office, Bird undoubtedly did good things for the franchise while with it. Though he ought to give way to Pritchard in formulating the philosophy and vision for the Pacers, his input as a consultant still figures to be valuable going forward.