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Steve Aschbruner

Larry Bird
Pacers CEO Larry Bird is driven to get Indiana back to its long-departed glory days.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Bird's three-year plan to fix Pacers nearing its deadline

Posted Oct 27 2010 9:42AM - Updated Nov 3 2010 11:37AM

As one of the NBA's all-time greats and a basketball savant who made it to The Finals in a three-year coaching stint, Larry Bird likes to win the way the rest of us like to breathe. That is to say, he craves it, needs it, burns for it.

Across his 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, Bird's teams were 436 games above .500 -- an average of 33.5 more victories than defeats -- and never suffered a losing season. In his first season (1997-98) on the Indiana Pacers' bench, he was named NBA Coach of the Year; in his third, the Pacers made their only appearance in The Finals. Shoot, Bird was so pathological as a cutthroat competitor that he gamed his fellow contestants in the first-ever 3-Point Shootout at the 1986 All-Star Weekend in Dallas. Striding into the locker room and surveying the field, the blond, 6-foot-9 assassin scoffed something like, "So, who's coming in second?"

If winning always has been the wind beneath his wings, though, Bird has been more ostrich or penguin since taking over as the Pacers' top basketball executive prior to the 2008-09 season. Indiana already was on the wrong side of .500, winning just 71 games in former President/CEO Donnie Walsh's final two seasons and, in 2006, ending a streak of nine consecutive playoff appearances and 16 in a span of 17 seasons. On Bird's watch the past two seasons, the Pacers have gone 68-96.

In his past lives, Bird would have chosen two years underwater before he'd accept two years under .500. But this is part of a plan set in motion when he took over for Walsh, a projected timeline that begins its critical third season Wednesday night in San Antonio. Losing -- a cost of doing business as the Pacers slashed their contract obligations and stockpiled Draft picks -- has been red-penciled out of the equation now.


With one-time All-Star Danny Granger getting schooled in his Team USA participation and with prospect Darren Collison aboard to plug a point-guard problem, a postseason berth, at least 41 victories or both are the team's targets for 2010-11. Come next summer -- collective bargaining harmony providing -- Indiana's payroll will be seriously under the NBA salary cap.

It hasn't been easy for Bird, for coach Jim O'Brien, for ownership, players or others in Indianapolis. But the worst might be over, which Bird talked about recently as he watched the Pacers warm up prior to their preseason finale at Chicago (a 102-74 loss): How important has it been for you to remain patient?

Larry Bird: When Donnie left, I told him, "Donnie, you know we've got to rebuild this." He said, "Bird, one thing in Indianapolis, you've got to win." But I went to the owner [Herb Simon] and told him, "Look, we're not gonna win. Here's what I think we should do. First we have to probably change the culture. Change the way we play. Bring in new faces. And hopefully we'll draft well enough that we can get a base, and eventually we'll have money where we go out and pick up a couple players, and we'll have a solid team." How's that working out for you and the team?

LB: Y'know, we don't have sellouts every night. But we think we've got a good nucleus. After this year, we'll be down to $34 million. And still have all the Draft choices. We hope we can build it the right way. We said it was gonna take us three years, and this is the third year. Hopefully we can get it done.

We can't go out there and get [Amar'e] Stoudemire and guys like that. We've just got to hope our Draft choices get better and if we go out on the free-agent market, which we're going to, we want to get players to fit in and fill our needs. We got lucky with Collison this summer. We just have to be patient with him. Jim O'Brien, when I talked to him, gives you maximum credit for having his back through this process. But is it hard for you to be patient?

LB: It's tough. People expect me to win. I know that. But I made a commitment to go back to Indiana and do this. And like I said, after this year, everybody in basketball -- scouting, coaches, me, a lot of our players -- everybody's up [at the end of their contracts]. The one good thing I feel is, if the [owners] want to go in a different direction, they'll be down to $34 million. They can change everything.

As far as winning-losing, it hurts. I get excited about these guys winning exhibition games -- and I know what exhibitions are. But I like to watch these young kids play and develop. And I knew what was gonna happen. Well, I thought we might get lucky in the East to get an eighth seed if we stayed healthy and played well, but we didn't. We were going to be in the lottery for a few years, which we have been. Your old Celtics teammate, Kevin McHale, did some research when he was running the Timberwolves. He said that teams that fall out of the playoffs typically take about seven years to get themselves out of lotteryland.

LB: Well, we said three and we think we're gonna get there. Have you put any deadlines on yourself, for how much longer you want to do this?

LB: No. My deal's up this year, and I haven't really thought about it. People ask me and I don't really have no answer. My kids are all in college after this year. I dunno, I really haven't thought about it. No sabbatical year for you, stepping away at least temporarily?

LB: Nah, I got back into it for the love of the game. I'm pretty fortunate. I don't have to do this. But I do like it. I don't like the losing, but I like it. What specifically do you like?

LB: I like the practice. I really love training camps. They're different from when we had 'em, but the way Jimmy runs his camp, he handles them perfectly. And for the guys who have been around, they want to win -- every year's a new year.

I love the games. I love to go to the games. I don't like to go on the road a lot anymore. But just watching them compete, yeah. Y'know, I care for these kids. It's a different feeling. Hell, when I was playing, I didn't like any of my teammates. But I care about these kids now. Is that an age thing, that they're young enough to be your kids?

LB: It is. You change. You draft 'em and you watch 'em and you want 'em to do well. It's a completely different mindset. You've been encouraged by Roy Hibbert's development since you got him two years ago in the Jermaine O'Neal deal with Toronto. What do you expect from him going forward?

LB: He's pretty good around the post. He can shoot a lot better than he used to. If you watch him, he shoots the ball very well. I think it's strength and confidence -- if he gets one foot in the paint, he can usually score. Does he need that one go-to move in the post, same as what people say about Dwight Howard?

LB: Dwight Howard is a completely different animal. He don't have to score to dominate. I say that because I saw it against us one night -- they came into [Conseco Fieldhouse] and he was just unbelievable on the defensive end. He set the whole tone for the game. I was sitting there, going, 'Man, you don't see that very often.' He had our guys where they were just throwing it up there, trying to shoot over him. He destroyed us in the first five minutes of the game. I couldn't believe it. What do you expect around the league this season?

LB: Obviously there are some teams that helped themselves. I don't get caught up in all the hype and all that stuff -- I've been around it forever. But I thought Chicago made some nice moves. Obviously Miami -- Pat Riley hit the jackpot. I like the Lakers and the Celtics and Orlando. There are about seven or eight good teams in this league. One of them will win the championship. After what we saw in July, do you worry at all about small-market teams like Cleveland, Toronto or Indiana and their ability to attract top free agents?

LB: It's tough. It's a different market. You see teams spending $90 million when you know you can only spend $65 [million]? And they get the best players? It's tough, there's no question about it. So teams like yours have to be smarter? Work harder?

LB: You have to be lucky, too. The league's not balanced, there's no question about that. We're coming into collective bargaining and hopefully they'll do something to help the small-market teams. See, I've always been a Pacers fan since I was a kid. I loved 'em. So I'd like to see them be able to hang in there. But if you're going to continue to lose $20 [million] or $30 million a year, a lot of teams can't handle that. I know you can't get into labor-talk specifics -- at least not without earning yourself a hefty fine -- but with talk about $750 million reductions in players' salaries and even contraction of some franchises, it sounds as if things are getting dire.

LB: When I played -- or even now -- I just wish both sides the best and I hope we play next year, to tell you the truth. I see the numbers. I know what they are. I like this league. It's come a long way in the last 20-some years, and everybody's doin' good. I want to see both sides do well. Lot of people's lives are at stake here.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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