Now that the dust has settled and Donnie Walsh is back doing his old job, we can analyze if Larry Bird was actually a good team president.
We can go back and look at his coaching hires, draft record and his ability to get the best in a trade. Enough time has passed to adequately assess his job as team president from 2003-2012.
Yes, we do bring up T.J. Ford.
Before we start, we are not putting Bird’s record as head coach into the conversation. His 147-67 head coaching record can stand by itself. He was an excellent coach and left at least one year too early. If Bird was the coach during their lone appearance in the NBA Finals, they might have squeaked out at least one more win.
Let’s look at the Pacers overall record during his tenure as the Pacers’ team president. From 2003-04 through the 2011-12 season, Indiana’s record was 364-358. During that stretch, they had three winning seasons and five playoff appearances. The first season of Bird’s tenure, the Pacers were 61-21 and earned a #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Detroit Pistons.
One of the most important moments in Pacers history happened under Bird’s watch. The “Malice at the Palace”, or also known as the “Palace Brawl”, was a turning point for the franchise. Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neal, Stephen Jackson and Reggie Miller were among the Pacers suspended. They had an image problem after that. The team was filled with guys with off-the-court issues and needed a face-lift. This started what I call the “Pretty Boy Era”.
Bird started cleaning house and ridding themselves of all players associated with the brawl or who have off-the-court problems. He didn’t end there, his next few drafts were filled with guys with squeaky clean images and most had at least three years of college basketball under their belt. Guys like David Harrison, Erazem Lorbek and Tyler Hansbrough were drafted during this time. He also signed guys like Travis Diener and traded for Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy.
After Reggie Miller retired, Bird failed to ever replace him with a face of the franchise. Attendance dipped to all-time lows and the team was losing money. The hangover from that period was felt until this season.. They had one of the best records in the NBA last year and they were still near the bottom in attendance.
Bird also had a penchant for hiring head coaches who had ties to the Boston Celtics. Bird played with Rick Carlisle with Boston, Jim O’Brien is a former head coach of the Celtics and Vogel is a former video coordinator for Boston. He has lucked out with Vogel, but his hiring strategy shows zero creativity.
Looking back at Bird’s draft record, he only drafted two future All-Stars (Danny Granger and Paul George). Roy Hibbert also made the All-Star team, but technically he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors and acquired in the Jermaine O’Neal/T.J. Ford deal. At the time, the deal was assumed to be just a bad contract swap, but Hibbert was a nice surprise.
During the “Pretty Boy Era”, Bird refused to completely bottom-out. He would put together a team that was competitive, but with a peark of a .500 team. So year after year, the Pacers wouldn’t net them a high lottery pick. I do believe it was Bird’s pride that kept him from tanking a season just for a high pick. He finally lucked out by drafting Paul George, a guy who most scouts believe to be a kid without a true NBA position.
Bird seemed to finally understand how to balance clean-cut guys with a few wildcards. He drafted Lance Stephenson in the second round in 2010. He was one of the best players in his high school class, but his stock fell after an average season at Cincinnati and attitude issues.
It’s unfortunate the Pacers are just now starting to hit their ceiling. Bird seemed to finally hit his stride as team president in the last two seasons. Donnie Walsh inherited a very good team that could win a ring soon.
If I put a grade on Bird’s performance as team president, I would give it a C. He had an F for so long, but he has aced the last two seasons. If Bird is ever in charge of another team, as an owner, I would take a few things out of his control or hire an advisor. He appears to need help scouting college talent and vetting coaches. I remember hearing he was high on Adam Morrison and D.J. Augustin going into their drafts. If he somehow acquired either of them at that point, the Pacers would be in worse shape.
If Larry Bird wants to get back into basketball after he rests up, he should probably stick to coaching.