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.