Back on April Fools Day, Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, the hosts of ESPN’s popular ‘Pardon The Interruption,’ opened the show with a segment speculating that Larry Bird was about to come down and replace Frank Vogel as the head coach of the reeling Indiana Pacers.
They talked about how the team was sliding and that something needed to be done. Bird, who had coached the Pacers before – albeit more than a decade ago – had been critical of the team, saying it needed to be tougher.
Then, after tantalizing its viewers with this possible coup d’etat, Wilbon and Kornheiser announced that it was all an April Fools Day joke.
Here’s the thing about April Fools Day ruses: They only work if there’s a degree of believability to them. Had Wilbon and Kornheiser announced that Larry Brown was coming back to coach the Pacers, and leaving SMU, well . . . OK, that’s probably not a good example. But you get the drift. The reason the joke worked was because it was credible.
Nothing has changed in the last nine days to make it any less credible; the Pacers are 2-2 heading into Friday night’s biggie in Miami. Lately, Indiana has lost seven of its last 10 games. The Pacers are 10-12 since March 1. The only reason they have managed to stay atop the East – or near the top depending on the day – is that the Miami Heat are struggling and no one else in the conference is within breathing distance, thanks to Indy’s 44-13 start.
Vogel rested all five of his starters on Wednesday night and the Pacers barely beat the Milwaukee Bucks. Three nights earlier, they had been embarrassed at home by the horrible Atlanta Hawks, losing by 19. Two nights before that, they lost to a Toronto team that was without two starters.
Back in December 2005, Pat Riley didn’t like what he saw in Miami and replaced Stan Van Gundy. The Heat went on to win a championship. But that was in December. And the Heat were 11-10.
A more intriguing – and appropriate – scenario has played out twice in New Jersey, not with the Nets, but with the NHL Devils. Once it paid huge dividends. The other time? Not so much. If nothing else, Vogel can thank his lucky stars that he doesn’t work for Lou Lamoriello, the Larry Bird of the Devils. If he did, he’d be watching the games on television.
In 2000, with less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Devils had the best record in the conference (like the Pacers do now) and the third best overall (Indy is No. 4.) But they were in a funk. They had lost 10 of 16 games including an embarrassing 5-0 defeat at home.
Lamoriello stepped in and whacked coach Robbie Ftorek, replacing him with assistant coach Larry Robinson. There were eight games left in the regular season.
“We were not playing to our capabilities,” Lamoriello said at the time. “I did not think we would come out of this slump.”
The change worked. The Devils went on to win the Stanley Cup. (Ftorek remained as a scout and the NHL allowed his name to be engraved on the Cup.) Lamoriello looked like a genius and obviously must have believed in late-season changes because he did it again seven years later to current Bruins coach Claude Julien.
This time, there were only three games left in the regular season (like Indiana has now.) But the Devils again were in first place in their division. They had won four of five games. Lamoriello did not like what he saw, however, and this time, he himself took over to coach the team. The Devils ended up No. 2 in the conference and made it to the second round of the NHL playoffs.
The Pacers started the year as the chic pick to win it all. They blew out of the gates and seemed destined to be the No. 1 seed in the East and maybe have the best record in the NBA.
Now? Yes, they may still hold the top spot in the conference – at least until Friday night. But does anyone outside of the Pacers loyal legions really think this team has what it takes?
There has been sniping among players. Bird clearly can’t be happy with what he sees. The only positive is the lack of a serious challenger in the conference outside of Miami. Nonetheless, given what we’ve seen over the last six weeks, would anyone be shocked to see the Pacers lose to Chicago (brilliantly coached by Tom Thibodeau) or even the Nets, who have the conference’s best record since Jan. 1, 2014?
Conference/Division leading teams usually don’t make coaching changes late in the season. But if Bird were to pull a Lamoriello, would anyone doubt the wisdom of such a move at this point?
It would not be a joke, that’s for sure.
Peter May is the only writer who covered the final NBA games played by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He has covered the league for three decades for The Hartford Courant and The Boston Globe and has written three books on the Boston Celtics. His work also appears in The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter.
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