Larry Bird’s forgotten track record with the Pacers

Larry Bird stepped down as president of the Indiana Pacers today, announcing his decision at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where there was no shortage of smiles and laughter and jokes and platitudes.

Boy, folks have a short memory nowadays. Or too long of one.

Yes, the Pacers and Bird enjoyed a renaissance this season. The team reached the Eastern Conference semifinals and Bird was named Executive of the Year. It’s interesting how one solid season from an NBA legend obscured a track record of mediocrity that lasted nearly a decade.

Bird was in charge of the Pacers’ personnel decisions for nine years. During that time, the Pacers went from a team that was two wins shy of the NBA Finals to four straight years in the lottery.

There was an ugly brawl in Auburn Hills that scarred the franchise and the NBA forever. There was a falling out with a fan base that saw the Pacers plummet to the bottom of the league in attendance. There were bad guys acquired through bad trades and bad drafts.

There were the first-round selections of David Harrison in 2004 and Shawne Williams in 2006. Harrison was suspended five games for violation of the anti-drug policy, apologized to the team, then maintained the NBA should not be allowed to examine his private life. The best thing that can be said about Williams’ two arrests on drug charges was that the second came after he left the Pacers.

There was the three-year contract given to international curiosity Sarunas Jasikevicius, whom they quickly found out could not get his own shot in the NBA.

There was the 2007 trade of Stephen Jackson, who had to go after the Malice at the Palace and another incident at a nightclub in Indianapolis. But that trade also cost the Pacers a good guy in Al Harrington and brought back the salary cap-killing contracts of lesser players Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy.

There was the hiring of Jim O’Brien, who already had flamed out in Boston and Philadelphia and somehow received a contract extension for – what? Consecutive lottery appearances?

There was the standoff with Jamaal Tinsley, who ended up being paid $12 million for playing 39 games over the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons.

There was the trade that landed James Posey, who became an amnesty casualty.

And there was a four-year stretch from 2007-10 where the Pacers finished no higher than 27th in attendance while missing the playoffs each season. The hapless New York Knicks were the only other Eastern Conference team that missed the postseason each of those years.

Let’s be honest – most personnel guys don’t get to stick around for four straight years of missing the playoffs. Coming home to Indiana to make those decisions for the Pacers certainly helped Bird.

There were some smarter moves lately. The deal to acquire Posey also landed Darren Collison. Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George were plucked in the draft. George Hill arrived via a draft day trade. Frank Vogel was retained as coach, a risky move that has paid dividends. And with significant cap room for the first time in years, the Pacers landed David West in free agency.

But the fact reamins that Bird’s entire body of work as an executive was subpar.

Maybe we’re raining on the parade, but it seems like Bird is getting a bit of a pass from the rest of the media because he is part of the NBA’s holy trinity, along with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. They are a huge reason why the league remains popular years after they hung up their kicks.

Maybe the rest of the media should remember that Johnson was a lousy coach (and only an ordinary analyst) and Jordan has been a bad executive. Along with Bird, they’re not playing anymore. Their MVP awards and championship rings don’t count. The jobs they took after their playing days have different standards of excellence.

And often, they have not met them.


  1. Arky says

    Very unfair on Bird. Leaving aside that he didn’t have the same role throughout all those 9 years, Indiana were HOT before the Malice in the Palace. They then collapsed (in attendance and on court) as a direct result of that incident, which wasn’t Bird’s fault. Instead of half-assing the rebuild, Bird took the extra time to clear the decks completely. A couple of extra years in the lottery while clearing the old contracts (or the bad contracts that had to be taken to clear the old contracts) are the price of becoming a contender and bringing the fans back. And a contender with good salary cap position, even.

  2. Chris Nolley says

    I stopped reading when you said that Bird was in charge of personell decisions for 9 years. He has been with the Pacers front office for 9 years, but Donnie Walsh was in charge of those decisions for the first half of that time. If you don’t know that, they rest of the article is pointless then because its based on bad informtion.

  3. Chris says

    The George Hill trade for Kawhi Leonard was actually bad. Leonard is already better than Hill and he was a rookie this year.

    2011-2012 Stats:
    Leonard: WP48: .284 ,WS/48: .171
    Hill: WP48: .169 ,WS/48: .152

    Hill is a really nice player, but Leonard is phenomenal. I’d add that to the list of bad moves by Bird.

    And to qualify, Larry Bird was/is my favorite NBA player of all time.

    • d says

      Leonard played and started for a better team with a better coach, and Indy didn’t have need at his position. Plus it wasn’t REALLY Leonard for Hill…it was Indy pick for Hill and San Antonio told indy who THEY wanted. If indy kept the pick they might have chosen someone else.

  4. Jack says

    As Charles Barkley would say it, his article is “TURRIBLE, JUST TURRIBLE!”

    You can nitpick Bird for the the bad personell decisions such as David Harrison, Shawne Williams, and Sarunas Jasikevicius but to not discuss Stephen Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley, and everything else post-Brawl without viewing it in the context of it being the immediate post-Brawl era is simply journalistic dishonesty.

    First, ANYONE who knows ANYTHING about the NBA knows this: There has NEVER been a situation like the Brawl. Period. Therefore, Bird was in uncharted waters. Can we acknowledge that much? Short of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, [insert transcendent superstar name here] NO ONE could have turned the Pacers situation around overnight. I don’t care who was running the front office.

    Second, as much as I like and respect Donnie Walsh, those bad contracts that Bird had to deal with were on Walsh. Bird should be commended on how he was able to get rid of guys like Jackson and Tinsley. These were guys who became absolute cancers and just all-around bad guys for the franchise. What’s worse is that the ticket purchasing fans came to this conclusion and stopped going to games. Were Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavey, Jr., ideal pick-ups? ABSOLUTELY! Why? Neither one ever got into a shooting incident at Club Rio.

    Finally, your assessment of Bird’s personell moves are incomplete at best. Bird should be criticized for Harrison and Williams and Jasikevicius. Harrison was a nut job. Williams was a pothead. And Jasikevicius was an embarrassment considering how Larry flew all over Europe courting him. But Bird absolutely stole Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, and Paul George in the draft. He got Darren Collison for virtually nothing. And he picked up two key veterens in George Hill and David West. Coach Jim O’Brien didn’t work out but it lead to Frank Vogel, an exciting young coach who has a chance to do some great things.

    In terms of talent AND salary cap, the Pacers are in tremendous shape moving forward. As long as Donnie Walsh can get Hibbert and Hill re-signed and new GM Kevin Pritchard can find another key piece or two, the Pacers will be in the mix for a long time. A significant amount of that credit will go to Larry Bird. And by ANY standard, it will be seen as a great job.

  5. BAugs says

    I’m sorry but I have to disagree on many levels with this article. Bird had his hands tied his first couple of years with the awful contracts and the Brawl. He couldn’t simply trade away all the players involved in the brawl because their trade values were tarnished because of it. Instead he was patient and moved them out slowly through the years. Enough cannot be said about what he has built with this current team. They are a very unselfish, good character tight knit group….. who not to mention on in the bottom half of overall payroll in the NBA. There is tons of cap room available to put together some trades. You have to give him credit for doing what he has done in Indiana. Let’s be honest people the superstars want to play in NY, Miami, LA ect… If anything base Larry’s job on the last 3 to 4 years when Walsh was completely out of the picture. If you go from there then I think you can give him a solid B+. Give anyone this task and they would fail. And one last thing Chris Bernucca what the heck is up with your haircut? It looks awful.

  6. Ryan SB says

    Absolutely horrendous article for all of the reasons “GeneralZod” stated. Its pretty obvious that “Sportsfanatic” either isn’t a sports fantacit…..or doesn’t know much at all about the Pacers. A – Danny doesn’t have an albatross contract…..he is making MUCH less than other players were getting when he signed that deal with the numbers he was putting up…..if anything that goes into the EXTREME positive moves that Bird made. B – At least get the number of years on the contract straight for DWest before trying to use it as a possible blunder scenario….it was a 2 year deal not 3 which means he has just 1 more year left….this was a coup on Birds part and I think its fair to say that if you ask any sports analyst that has a clue on what they are “analyzing” (I’m not looking at you ESPN) they will tell you that West was the catalyst for what went right this year in Indiana…..his veteran, no nonsense presence is what got everyone going. GREAT signing. C – Not sure how you can complain about turning Leonard (who I think is going to be a fine player) for Hill was a bad move either…..Leonard plays a position that we were deepest at and we turned him into a guy that filled a need AND has more room to grow….not to mention his play-off pedigree with arguable the best NBA franchise of this century…..I would be interested to see where you think we would have been in the play-off hunt when Darren went down with the injury without G3. The one and Only real blunder that I will say Bird made was allowing O’Brien to stay around for so lone and even that is debatable…..I am sure there were reasons we are unaware of influencing this… the end of the day if thats what it took to get a rising star young coach in Vogel then I’m fine with it.

  7. Enfuego says

    Yeah, this needed to be said. As a Pacers fan, I’ve been happy with Bird from 2009-2012. But I was very unhappy with him from 2005-2009. And you can’t put all the mistakes on Donnie. However, it’s silly to insinuate that the brawl was somehow on Bird.

    Though he may not have publicly admitted it, I think Bird knows he made several bad front office moves (Jim O’Brien was egregious) and he wanted to stay to correct them.

    Selecting Hibbert and Paul George were excellent draft decisions. Shawne Williams was a bust at the Pacers, but has since matured into a contributor. The Pacers are not on the level of the Spurs when it comes to front office decisions, but I think they’ve moved into the top half of the league.

  8. Sandman says

    David West is only on a two year deal. His contract expires at the end of next season. For a guy coming off a knee surgery like he did, I’m not too worried. He got better as the season went on.

  9. GeneralZod says

    this is a terrible article in all honesty. what the author fails miserably at is identifying the reality that larry had to clean up donnie walsh’s mistakes. it wasn’t until donnie was out that they traded away jermaine oneal who had been falling apart for some time already. in fact, until donnie left, donnie- not larry had final say over everything. donnie got the long-term tinsley contract, the bender contract, the oneal contract. he brought in troy and mike from the warriors . al harrington was a ghost of a player from his 1st stint with the team. he had settled into a sit on the perimeter and chuck a three kind of guy.

    dave harrison was the last pick in the 1st round. if anyone thinks that was a bad choice to draft on potential there, you are silly. the pacers were in no need for james posey. they wanted collison and posey was contract filler. yes- there are players that act as filler.
    if you really want to judge bird’s body of work, take a look at what he did AFTER walsh left. it was only then larry could do what he wanted without being overturned by walsh.
    the biggest blunder bird made as a gm was sticking with o’brien when he clearly wasn’t working out.
    but other than that, he actually DID do a heck of a job when the call was really his to make.

  10. says

    Excellent article. Just yesterday, I was telling a Boston fan, how despite Larry Bird winning exec. of the year, his overall time in Indiana has been quite underwhelming. Danny Granger’s albatross of a contract which he is no way earns and the fact that Kahwi Leonard looks as though he will go on to have a very productive NBA career should also be looked as negatives for Bird. Yes, George Hill had a good year, but the trade is still a wash. The reason why Indiana was so much better this year is because after having 3 awful season, Roy Hibbert had a much better than average season. The 3 yr signing of David West may yet prove to be a mistake as a starting power forward that averages 6.6 rebounds a night is not grabbing enough rebounds for your team. For a career, West’s 7.2 rebounds a night was below the avg. starting power forward, so we can already see some decline in West’s abilities. To pay $10 million a year for something that is below average, seems to be an overpayment. Additionally, if this is what West did in his first year, let’s see how his production decreases by year 3. I’ll give Bird a “wash’ on the West signing, but will certainly not give him a plus for the signing. Bird’s total grade as the Pacers executive is a D+ at best.

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