INDIANAPOLIS — Once you’ve won Executive of the Year, adding to your three MVPs and Coach of the Year and three championships and etc., etc., where do you go from here?
Hopefully, for the Pacers’ sake, Larry Bird goes back to work.
“Right now we’re working on the Draft and we’ve got free agency, so it never stops,” he said. “We keep plugging along.”
That’s the closest Bird has come to committing to next season. Right now, the franchise is left to guess, like everyone else, what exactly is in Bird’s immediate future. And if he knows, he’s not saying. Bird has maintained all along that he’ll wait until after this season to decide whether to retire or solider on as Pacers president, and the drama is only building because the Pacers’ season is stretching longer than it has in seven years.
Much of that is due to the turnaround engineered by Bird, who was officially named the league’s top exec Wednesday, the day after the Pacers evened their second-round series with the Heat. The honor is well deserved by Bird, only the third man (after Frank Layden and Pat Riley) to own a coach and executive award, because his fingerprints are all over this current Pacers’ team. In the last several months, Bird added David West, George Hill, Louis Amundson and Leandro Barbosa without giving up much in terms of core assets. Handcuffed by the realities of the typical small-market team, and one that hasn’t had the luxury of landing a franchise player through the draft, the Pacers are deep and with a mix of veterans and youth.
It has been a long and slow climb to respectability for Bird and the Pacers, following the Malice at the Palace several years ago, when he was forced to push the restart button. The Pacers had image issues and salary cap issues, which resulted in years of losing games and a segment of the fan base.
“It took a lot of work,” Bird said. “We had to change the culture. We had to take it slow and get some players we thought we could build around. It was a long journey, it was a painful journey, but we think it’s going to pay dividends.
“Last summer we got lucky and picked up a couple of players, and I’m really excited about where this franchise is heading. I like my team, and we’re young, so we’ve got room to grow.”
Bird initially took plenty of heat when he first began to rebuild, a typical reaction by an impatient society.
“Being from Indiana and having the chance to work for a great franchise like the Pacers was an honor, but I knew it was going to be tough,” said Bird. “And it’s still tough. We don’t drive revenues like the big market teams. We can’t go after $17-$18 million players. We’ve got to go about it a different way. One piece at a time. If we try to patchwork it, it don’t work that way. At least that’s what I’ve seen. We had an opportunity to get under the cap and we’ve made the most of it.”
Among Bird’s better moves was last summer’s hiring of Frank Vogel over Mike Brown. Vogel is the former Pacers assistant coach who turned last season’s surprising playoff run into a 2011-12 campaign that saw the Pacers grab the No. 3 seed.
“If you look at how this team has been built, it really is remarkable,” said Vogel. “We haven’t had a No. 1 or 2 pick in the draft. We only have one player taken in the top 10 and that’s Paul George at No. 10. To build this team with mid-lottery picks and not exactly blockbuster trades is nearly impossible to do.”
And so, what’s next? Well, Bird said he’d never leave the job until he was sure the Pacers had turned the corner. And now that they have, Bird is on the clock.