When Paul George went down with an injury in the summer of 2014, Larry Bird looked at what was in front of him and saw a slow team trying to compete when all around him was quickness and three point shooting. In a twist of irony, the Paul George injury was the best thing that happened to the Pacers and Bird himself. Had he held on to the West/Hibbert/George triad the Pacers would still be stuck in an archaic system while the rest of the NBA evolved around them.
Larry Bird was a dynamic individual player, a great teammate with impeccable versatility, someone who could spot up and shoot, or post up and eviscerate his defender. It is this ability to switch oars mid stream that has the Pacers once again in need of a major overhaul. Keep Paul George and Myles Turner. Get rid of everyone else.
In 2015, Bird traded Roy Hibbert, let David West go and decided to succumb to the new style of NBA. The Pacers had survived with David West as their anchor and leader for three years and it paid dividends, two Eastern Conference Finals appearances. But West was aging and was keeping the Pacers from adapting to the new style of play. Without West, the Pacers could play up-tempo.
Despite his superstar’s reluctance, Bird moved Paul George to power forward. He signed explosive scorer Monta Ellis as the shooting guard. Early in his career, Ellis gained the reputation of a selfish player but his two years playing for Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks) was evidence he had matured and could fit into a team first dynamic. Bird signed Jordan Hill who had a career year with the Lakers.
The Bird invention was born. Shoot three’s. Push the pace (no pun intended). Defend on the perimeter. Let Paul George whine. He was the leader of the team but would fall back in line once he saw the brilliance of it. It was all part of the blueprint.
But not so brilliant.
That team lost in the first round, a seven game defeat to the Toronto Raptors. There was collateral damage. Larry Bird parted ways with long time coach Frank Vogel. They said goodbye to native son George Hill and big man Jordan Hill. They brought in another homegrown product Jeff Teague. They added Thaddeus Young to the front court. On paper, they appeared better. They even added big man Al Jefferson.
But the Pacers were worse. They had to gut it out the last month just to make the playoffs. They weren’t a high volume three point team. They were middle of the pack in terms of pace. They didn’t get to the line. They were awful rebounders. They failed at fast break basketball. They had one great player.
The faces and expectations changed but the reality was similar to the year before. In 2015-16, the Pacers were imperfect too. They were a mediocre offensive rebounding team (17th). They were an ineffective assist team (22nd). They didn’t block shots (17th). They were an average shooting team (17th).
But they (temporarily) have Paul George as their franchise leader and this season he had a monster season, a career year in points (23.7), field goal attempts (18.0), field goal percentage (46.1%), free throw percentage (89%), and offensive rating (109).
Larry Bird was choosing Paul George in the same way Jerry Buss chose Kobe Bryant. Bird was trusting Paul to take his game to a different level, for his mental approach to be relentless, for his leadership to be inspiring, for his talent to meet its moment. Bird believed not only that George could lead but that he would lead. And in doing so the Pacers would return to the hallowed ground of four years ago.
This playoffs, George racked up points but he only shot 38% and had the worst defensive rating (117) of his career, regular season or playoffs. He lacked the consistency of other superstars. He was slammed by the media for his casualness in criticizing his teammates publicly. Everyone is a mind reader and thinks that means Paul George has one foot out the door, wants a divorce, but no one really knows since George isn’t talking.
Pretty soon, the clock with strike midnight.
Like last summer, Bird has all the pressure. Paul George is the difference between the Pacers having hope and being a top-5 lottery team.
Last summer, lost in the glow of Bird’s splashy moves were his mistakes: the supporting cast. The Pacers have no size. They don’t have a reliable second scorer to relieve Paul George. Their bench was below average when it came to production and were easy to defend. They had the 22nd best scoring backcourt. They were pretty anemic scoring in the paint, 21st out of 30 NBA teams. Only Portland, Boston and Toronto had a worse collection of power forwards. The Pacers had below average shooting guards.
Swept in the first round isn’t the player’s fault though they are the low hanging fruit to take the blame. The players played to their strengths and abilities. At their best, they were no match for a LeBron James defending champion team. The Pacers didn’t give less than they had. It was the structure of the team that failed Indiana. For that Larry Bird takes the blame. It’s a cautionary tale. A GM is only as good as the role players he signs that fit the system and their conference.
Larry Bird missed. A bad shot clanked the rim. It’s time to start over.
photo via llananba