Bird's Moves the Stuff of Legend
May 17, 2012
As it was when he played, and again when he coached, Larry Bird's genius as a team-builder lies in his subtlety.
There was no big bang, nothing that set off the Richter Scale around the NBA that led to this Pacers team with the fifth-best record in the league, the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket and now homecourt advantage in the conference semifinal series with mighty Miami.
He won the NBA Executive of the Year award Wednesday because of his execution of a complex, meticulous and brilliantly conceived plan.
"Being from Indiana and having a great opportunity to work for a franchise like the Pacers was an honor but I knew it was going to be tough and it's still tough," Bird said. "We don't drive revenues like the big-market teams, we can't go after $17-18 million players.
"We have to do it a different way. We've got to do it a piece at a time. If we try to patchwork it, it doesn't work that way. When we had the opportunity and got under the cap, we made the most of it."
After changing the locker room culture, turning over the roster, drafting wisely, carefully managing the payroll and changing coaches, Bird's team reached the playoffs in 2011. It was a young, energetic bunch that showed potential in pushing the Bulls to five games but he didn't get carried away in the moment.
He knew it was still a sub-.500 team, and so he went to work. In need of veteran leadership, not to mention an interior complement to Roy Hibbert, he used much of his hard-earned salary cap space to sign David West. Saddled with another middling first-round pick, he dealt it to San Antonio for George Hill. Fully aware of the back issues facing Jeff Foster, he traded for Lou Amundson. When the bench needed a lift, he made a midseason deal for Leandro Barbosa. Facing the possibility of a first-round matchup with Dwight Howard, he signed Kyrylo Fesenko.
"If you look at how this particular team has been built, it's really remarkable," Coach Frank Vogel said. "From where we were a few years ago, you look at the Kevin Durant Oklahoma City team we're compared to a lot because we're young in a small market and all that stuff, it's really a different approach.
"We haven't had the No. 2 pick in the draft, No. 3 pick in the draft, No. 4 pick in the draft. Nobody on this team is a top-10 pick except Paul George, who was 10th. To be able to build this team with mid-lottery picks and trades, it's near-impossible to do. So for Larry and (General Manager) David Morway to build the team the way they have done, they deserve the award hands-down."
Those veteran additions brought 136 games of playoff experience, more than doubling the total of the others on the roster. West, Barbosa and Hill all have played major roles in the team's postseason success -- and particularly in the 78-75 Game 2 win in Miami.
Barbosa came off the bench to help spark the team to a 61-50 lead late in the third quarter, and then hit the go-ahead basket in the fourth. West scored seven in the final period, including a bucket in the lane over LeBron James that made it 76-73. And Hill polished off his 15-point night with a strong defensive stop, forcing Dwyane Wade to take too steep an angle on his drive to get a good look at a layup that would've tied it in the closing seconds.
"They made us a full team," Bird said of his veterans. "The leadership, the way they go about their business, the more playoff experience we get it's going to help everyone. They've done a great job leading us where we want to go. David's a man. He's just a man. Barbosa hit some shots in the second half to keep the pressure off of us and George was gritty all night."
The first in NBA history to win MVP, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year, Bird's key move, the linchpin to this team, was the signing of West. To get the highly sought-after veteran free agent from the Hornets, Bird had to win a recruiting battle with none other than his former team, the Celtics.
Boston offered the potential for big things this year. Bird offered something more substantial: a team with a present and a future.
"He's put together a pretty solid basketball team here," West said. "More than anything, he's identified guys who have got pretty good character, trying to do the right thing. This is one of the best locker rooms I've been a part of in terms of guys individually every day getting up and collectively trying to do the right thing.
"Ultimately, it was about the core and the potential this group had and that hasn't changed. Maybe because he was familiar with these guys and had been around them he saw it coming."
Of that, you can be certain. Bird's vision in rebuilding this team has been 20-20.
His moves on and off the court were not made for SportsCenter. They were, however, the stuff of legend.