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Q-and-A: Bird Assesses the Pacers at Halfway Point

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

The Pacers are having an interesting season.

They had a 12-5 record the first week of December despite an 0-3 start, but have since fallen to 23-22 heading into Thursday's game against Atlanta. Paul George started quickly despite coming off a broken leg that kept him out of all but six games last season, earning Player of the Month honors in November, but he's been erratic since then. The faster pace and spread offense that were the talk of the off-season have largely been shelved by coach Frank Vogel, who has reverted mostly to the comfort of playing two big men. First-round draft pick Myles Turner missed 22 games with a fractured left thumb, but has been a sensation since returning, offering hope for a bright future.

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All of which makes it a good time to with down with president Larry Bird for his thoughts on the team. Mark Montieth and Conrad Brunner from 1070 The Fan met with Bird in his office on Thursday for an in-depth conversation.


Q: Frank (Vogel) is getting away from "small ball," going with a big lineup most of the time. How do you feel about that?

Bird: It's his call. He's coaching the team. We talked about it all summer. We talk about it daily. I think he feels comfortable going with two bigs. My thought process the whole time was to play faster. I wanted to score 103 points a game. I think we're 101 or so (102.3, actually). We're not far off, but I think he feels comfortable playing with two bigs, and that's fine. If he feels that's what he thinks will get us the most wins, that's what we should do.

Can you play faster with two bigs, given who your bigs are?

If Myles (Turner) starts with Ian (Mahinmi), probably. The one thing is, if you play faster there's less play-calling and you have to get out and move the ball up the court. I think Frank's bread and butter is playing two bigs and calling the plays. And really trying to defend. Just gut it out and try to get the wins.

Are you trying to get him away from that, or are you fine with him sticking with what he's comfortable with?

We're halfway through the season. My philosophy is, I've been watching this a long time. I'd like to play faster. I thought we might be able to do it. My vision was (Paul George) would play more of the four, not all of the time, but play it more. Paul's a good rebounder. If he played the four he'd be a better rebounder. But I understand. He's coming off a serious leg injury. He's going to hit spurts like he's hit here. It's tough sitting out a year and coming back. That's why I wanted him at the four more (laughing), so he wouldn't have to guard (on the perimeter).

But I understand what Frank's saying. I understand what he feels comfortable with.

Myles has played awfully well lately and there's talk he should be starting. Do you care if he's in the starting lineup or not?

I don't care and I don't think he cares. I think he deserves to get his minutes. It's unfortunate he got hurt and missed six weeks, because my thing to him at the beginning of the season was, let's see how good you are at the All-Star break. But obviously he's played pretty well here the last few games. We'll try to build on that. I don't expect him to play great every game. He's one of the most talented guys out there and probably our best shooter. But he's young. I don't put too much pressure on him, but I want to put enough on him to see if his game can go up to another level.

In November, was it as simple as Paul was playing out of his mind and that was the big catalyst...

C.J. Miles, too. He was making shots.

Is that what was happening in November and that's not what's happening now?

Right. We had the court spread and were getting a lot easier baskets. Jordan Hill was scoring one on one down in the post. Now it's sort of packed in and we're not hitting outside shots. You live by the three, you die by the three. We got off to a good start because the ball was moving better, we got the court spread and we were making shots.

Can you regain that with the personnel you have, playing the way you're playing?

Yeah, if you start making some shots. C.J. is the key. The one thing that hurt us the most this year is Rodney Stuckey going out. That's really hurt us. He was anchoring that second unit. He had games last year where he scored 18, 20, sometimes 30 points a game. The glue guy for the second unit is not there.

It seemed like C.J. paid a price for volunteering to play the four, because he got beat up a little bit and then missed some games.

I don't think he got beat up. The four position is not like it used to be. It's not a battle down there. He's got to box out. Yeah, he's giving up size. I don't think it's as tough as everybody thinks it is. But, when he's playing well and shooting well, we get a rebound and go down, the four's got to stay with him. It spreads the court out and makes the game a lot easier for us. But if he's not making shots and we're not moving the ball, they pack it in and it makes it tougher for everybody.

Because this is a season where everything is evolving, with February coming up, are you less inclined to be active (regarding trades)?

It takes two teams. Two years ago it was Evan Turner and Danny Granger, that just came on the spur of the moment. You never know. I'm not saying we're out there really looking hard, but we've got to pay attention. We've got some holes and if we can fill them, we will.

What's the primary need that you see?

I don't want to get into that, but you watch us everyday, you know what our needs are. I think the franchise is in a good place, I really do. Everybody's going to have cap money and everybody's going to be going out and try to overpay and get these players they want, but we have a mix of some young and some old. Paul's just (25) years old, Myles is 20. Joe (Young) hasn't played well, but in time we feel he's going to be able to score the ball. We've got good pieces here, but we've just got to add to it.

Our areas of weakness are where we've got to try to get better. The draft is going to be great this year. We're going to get another great young player and continue to build it.

Is leadership an issue?

We don't have a lot of vocal leaders here. You always have great leadership when you win a lot of games. When you go through tough times like this, it's always questioned. I don't know if we have great leadership. I know some coaches in this league are leaders. I think they lead the team more than the players. But having the type of season we've had...I will say we're underachieving. We've got better talent than what we're showing.

I think some games we come out and we feel we should win the game but we lose at the end. It happened (against the Clippers on Tuesday). We come out and score 17 points in the fourth quarter, you're not going to win many games doing that. I have to say I'm a little disappointed we haven't gotten more wins. But my goal is to make the playoffs. That's what I said at the beginning of the year and I still believe we should make the playoffs.

It seems Monta Ellis is your most vocal leader. Has he met your expectations?

The problem with Monta when he got here, he was coming off knee surgery in the summer, and it wasn't a major surgery, then he had some problems staying healthy. He was getting beat up. Monta's a gamer. He ain't going to say a lot. He's just now getting over that (injury). He hasn't been able to practice a lot on his shot, so it's tough. I've been in them situations. If you're not able to get your reps up, you're not going to shoot as well as you want. When Monta came in here, all I told him was, we need you to score 16 points a game. We need you to be consistent. We won't ask you to be a leader, we won't ask you to do anything you can't do. But we'll see how the year goes then we'll have a better judgment on how he played. But up 'til now I don't think he's played as well as he would like to.

When you talk about where the holes are, are you talking positionally or a skill set? Like a shooter, or ball movement, or defense

It's according to how you want to play, and I think everyone knows how I want to play. I'd like to have an athletic big and I'd like to have – whether it's a point guard or a guy who can get us in the offense and play George (Hill) off the ball a little bit or put Monta on the ball – we've got good players, we just don't have the big athletic guys that we like and need. I think we'll be able to get that. Paul's getting through this year and Myles is going to be an outstanding player and Mahinmi has had his best year. Mahinmi is playing great. (Against the Clippers), coming off an ankle injury and missing a few days, I thought he was excellent. I thought he played hard and aggressive. We have pieces, but we have some holes and we have to fill them.

Paul seems almost as if he's battling himself a little bit, trying to figure who he should be.

When Paul plays well, everything is fine. When he isn't making his shots, he gets down on himself. It's not easy out there. I sat out a year before, and you do get fatigued, but most of it's mental fatigue. You feel sorry for yourself. You have to fight through that. You have to move on to the next game and the next practice. You have to keep working and you'll come out of it.

It looks to me like he struggles sometimes because he don't have certain parts of...he don't have a post-up game. Maybe we're not setting good enough picks for him. Maybe he's not moving off the ball enough. When it comes easy like it did for him at the beginning of the year, you think it's going to be like that all year. Since he's our key scorer, guess what? The other team's going to shift everything toward him. It makes it a little tougher.

It seems like he's battling between, "Do I work harder and get through this fatigue, or do I rest?"

Well, you always work harder. You know, it's amazing, your mind will always play games on you in this league, because everything's a routine, everything's the same every day. The better players always fight through the mental fatigue. It's just like you hear a guy, one of the best players in the league, is sick. And he goes out and plays great. (People say) he must not have been that sick. No. He blocks it out of his mind and he fights through it.

Mental fatigue in this league brings so many guys down it's unbelievable. They give in to it. You can't give in to mental fatigue. You just have to work harder. Your body can do anything you want it to do. If you're not really injured and you're fighting mental fatigue, you can fight through that. I've done it. I've seen guys do it. I played with players (who said before the game), "Man, I can't hardly move, but when I step out there I know I'll be ready." And they played their (tails) off. Because your mind plays games on you. Especially when your job is to run.

I think Paul's going through a little of that and I think he'll get through it. He's our guy and yeah, he'll need rest, but I'd like to see his itinerary for All-Star break (laughing). He'll have energy come All-Star break.

Do you feel like he's learning to cope with stardom and fame and all the attention that comes with it?

I had a long talk with Paul right before he signed his contract last time, and told him what to expect. I don't think kids believe me until it really happens. I can't say whether he's handled it good or bad. But I think he's had some eye-openers along the way, and I think he'll have some more. The same with Lance (Stephenson), when he was here. I had a lot of conversations with Lance and told him different things. It's difficult.

Frank keeps using the phrase "state of flux." It seems like it's important to get to the point you know. Does that need to happen this year?

Yeah. We've got to find out who we are and what we're trying to do here. I can say we've got to make the playoffs, and everybody says "Why would you want to be the seventh or eighth seed?" I do. I want to be in the playoffs because you build on that. You build on everything every year and it ain't going to happen overnight. I think we need to be in the playoffs and then we can put the pieces together and fill some holes and go from there.

We're relying on Paul a lot. We think Myles is good enough to give him some help. Now who's the other guy? Who's going to be that third guy? We've got to know what we're doing. We can't sit here at All-Star break and say, "OK, how do we want to play, you know?" We've got to play one way and it's either we're going to run or we're going to play big.

That's why when the season starts I leave it up to Frank. Now, we talk about it all the time and he keeps me informed what he wants to do, but I'm not going to coach the team. Because I know how hard it is. I always tell Donnie (Walsh), "Remember when we was down there?" It's tough. ...I'm not here to coach the team, but there's ways I want to play. Me and Frank talked about it and then we decided we'd like to play a little faster, then once we got going, he decided we were a little better with two bigs. That's what he thinks. I let him do it.

If it evolves that's what he settles on, a big team that doesn't play as fast, would you regard that as a setback?

No, not a setback. We're trying to get wins. I don't think it's a setback. Even Frank brought up, we want to be like Golden State. We're never going to be like Golden State. We don't have that talent. There's a different level of talent there. But in the East, what I want to do is continue to play good defense...and 103 points will put you in the top eight in the league in scoring. We haven't been there. We've been 25, 27, 24...we've never been top 10. That's what I was looking at. I thought it would help our team if we would score more.

Defensively, we can talk all these stats defensively, but how many times did we get beat backdoor the other night in key situations? When it comes time to stop people we're not stopping them. That's why we're losing games.

It seems like you have almost too much depth on your roster. You have guys who have played who aren't able to get into the games. It seems like with the trade deadline coming...

Yeah, we've got some young guys we're high on but they're not ready yet, but we want to play them a little bit. Like I said, if we had Stuck (Rodney Stuckey) in there we'd have been all right. Some of these guys wouldn't be playing as much. Some of these guys played well at the beginning. Now, every fourth game they'll have a good game. You can't have that. I don't think we've got too much talent, but we've got too many guys who are all about the same. Good players, but not great players.

Stuckey's one of those guys you don't realize until he's gone (how much you need him).

Exactly. And he's a guy when he's hurt, you know he's hurt. His problem is, he tried to play on this (sprained ankle) and never let it heal. Then he'd play for a week and it would get sore. Then the last time he goes, "I'm not doing this anymore." (Our training staff) said, "We've got to shut him down until this goes away." For the whole year, I don't think it will ever go all the way out of there, but it's got to calm down. Even Stuck came in and said, "Man, I can't hardly walk." Everybody has injuries, but your key guy on the second unit, that's painful for us.

I don't want to be an excuse team, but if you can't take care of business down the stretch, maybe you've got to find players who can help you do that.

Glenn Robinson finally got his chance, but it seemed like maybe he's not ready. He showed so much potential in the preseason...

He'll be all right. He's not to the starter level yet. When we put him in the starting lineup, that's a whole different ballgame for him. He reverts back to not being active. He's got to be aggressive. When you're aggressive – I'm not just talking about scoring, I'm talking about rebounding and getting through picks and different things – he plays a lot better. But he's going to be a good one. His demeanor is too good not to be.

That's what they said in college, he needs to be more aggressive.

He fell into a trap up there, because they said "We have a No. 1 guy and a No. 2 guy and he was the third guy." And he accepted that role. Instead of fighting his best friends for second and first, he was content with that. He's content with what he does here. But he's got to get better. He'll be a fine backup. And he'll be a guy you can put in there at the end of games and he'll make something happen. Because he's a worker, he's got the athletic ability, he knows how to play, and he'll just continue to get better over time.

Donnie said November was almost bad in a certain way because all of a sudden everybody gets (a high impression of the team.) It changes the vision through which you see everything else, as the team moves into the next two months. Maybe these last couple months are more of what the season was going to be.

All these games they lost at the end brought them down mentally. That's what happened. When they started losing close games, they started self-doubting. They'd play pretty well, have leads, get in the fourth quarter and lose the lead again, and then it's "We can't finish games. Why can't we finish games?" I think that really hurt them. That brought them down. They've started thinking about it now.

You guys know this league, the first half you go out there, you play hard, but you really don't turn it up until the second half. Everybody's known that since the history of the game. When other teams get up into us, we throw the ball away. We're not executing like we should. That's really hurt them. That's what's brought them down. I don't think they have a lot of confidence as a whole.

Seems like a lot of times, late in the game, they don't even get a shot, or a good shot. Is that execution? Is that structure? They're not even able to get good shots a lot of times.

One of the problems with our team, if they get overplayed they don't know what to do. We talk to them in practice, "You go backdoor, the other guy replaces, and you continue to do that."

It comes down to making the right plays and the big decisions. Maybe our decision-makers aren't making the right decisions, too. By not getting that ball in the other night and not having an opportunity to tie or win, in this league that's not good. That is not good. Even if you have one second on the clock, you have to feel you're going make that basket, and you're going to get it to the player who's going to make it. We didn't do that.

Our players short-cut a lot. When you short-cut a lot, things like that happen. By not going backdoor, by not setting a good pick, by not popping where you're supposed to, by coming out of a timeout and one guy don't know the play...that happens to everybody. It's amazing. It's happened for the 30-some years I've been here. You come out of a (huddle) and one guy goes, "Hey, where am I supposed to be? What are we running?" I mean, what the hell? It's a play you run everyday.

I'm not talking about these guys, I'm talking about everybody. It's happened millions of times. We did it (when I played in Boston). D.J. (Dennis Johnson) would say, "What are we running?" And he's our point guard!

How close do you think this team is to being a contender?

For a championship? We're not a contender. With our young guys, going forward, if we get the right pieces, yeah, we can be right back in it. But I don't think right now with what we have as far as a solid group, I don't think we're a contender. That's why I say the playoffs. We're not a contender this year, but with our young guys, we'll keep building on that and hopefully filling some holes this summer, then we can contend, no question.

You've said you'd like to run more and play more spread, and you believe they can do that. Frank has his thoughts. Is everybody that needs to be on the same page on the same page?

Not right now. Because we're going back to the big. I wouldn't say we're all on the same page. This is something I talked with Frank about this summer. He'll coach the way he wants to coach them. He likes the idea, he wanted to try it, and we're going to play small some, but we're not going to use it starting the game. I think some of the guys feel until Myles gets better, we have to go with two bigs all the time. Then when he gets going, yeah, we can play him and the other big together and achieve what I want to achieve.

It seems like Myles gives you the best of both worlds. He'll spread the floor on offense because he's a perimeter shooter and he'll protect the rim on defense.

And he can run. You have to give the kid time, though. I can't imagine playing at 19. But he's got a chance, and it's going to take awhile, but one thing about Myles, and I've been here a long time, our strength and conditioning coach (Shawn Windle) told me he's never had a guy work as hard as him. I've had some good workers here. I thought Lance was excellent, I thought Roy (Hibbert) was excellent, just to name a few, but they said, "No, no. No comparison here."

That is something. And they said he worked harder when he was injured than he has all year. But overall he's by far, by far...and Stuckey's in there all the time, too. You can't beat some of these guys (for work ethic), but they swear by this kid. They say he's going to be one of the top players in the league just by how hard he works. And his skill level. ...and his attitude. This kid down the road will be a real leader. He'll be a real leader.

You've talked before how you almost didn't draft Paul George. How obvious was it to you to draft Myles Turner?

Myles was my guy all along. I didn't think Myles would ever be there. I had the same concerns other people had (about the way he ran), but once we talked to him and I asked him what he would do if we drafted him, would he be one of these guys who goes back home? He said, "No, I'll be right in there."

It was a no-brainer for us. Because we knew we could help him. That's how good our (training staff members) are downstairs. They knew everything. And he already went through all the testing and he was better. He was even running better in July. As time went on, with all this strength work, he's gotten better and better.

I just didn't think he would be there. We were talking a lot about the kid from Indiana who went to Utah (Trey Lyles, who went immediately after Turner). We liked him a lot. But when you get to the 10 spot, you think we know what everybody's doing? You have no clue what everybody else is doing. You're sitting there anticipating if these two guys are going to be there, then somebody like Myles gets there and it changes the whole thing.

This summer, he'll probably be here most of the summer and there's some things he needs to work on. He's got a great post game. You throw it to him and he's got a great jump hook. He can swing it into the middle, too. He just doesn't do it enough. He'll be fine. He's the least of my worries.

Joe Young on the other hand, he's not really a point guard, but he can get an open shot and that's something we don't have. I wish I would have put Joe in the D League more than just a few games to get him some reps, but he's going to be alright.

The other night, it was a disaster for him. I saw what happened in the first half. I saw he was struggling a little bit. He was coming unglued a little bit in the first half, then when he got back in there he wasn't confident. When he gets used to the pressure, he'll be fine.


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