Larry Bird was named President of Basketball Operations of the Indiana Pacers on July 12, 2003. Ironically, Bird’s first move as GM of the Indiana Pacers was to re-sign Jermaine O’Neal. Larry inherited a team that had won 48 games the previous season but had been defeated in the first round by the sixth seeded Boston Celtics. Not surprisingly, Bird fired coach Isiah Thomas (an individual Bird had openly feuded with during his playing days) a little more than a month into his tenure and replaced Isiah with Rick Carlisle.
But aside from firing Thomas and hiring Carlisle, all of Indiana’s success should be attributed to Donnie Walsh. Walsh drafted high school phenom Al Harrington with the 28th pick in the 1998 NBA draft, traded Antonio Davis for Jonathan Bender in 1999, traded Dale Davis for Jermaine O’Neal in 2000, and traded Jalen Rose, Travis Best, and Norm Richardson for Ron Mercer, Kevin Ollie, Ron Artest,and Brad Miller in 2002.
The Pacers — with O’Neal, Artest, Harrington, Reggie Miller, and Jamal Tinsely in the starting lineup — and Bender coming off the bench — won 61 games in the 2003-2004 NBA season. Indiana was eliminated by the eventual NBA champion Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals that year but their future was bright. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Pacers franchise was thrust into turmoil after the Malice at the Palace in November of 2004. Artest was suspended for the remainder of the season. Stephen Jackson — acquired by Bird in July 2004 for Al Harrington — was suspended 30 games. And Jermaine O’Neal was lost for 15 games.
The Pacers never recovered from that incident. Partly because of the suspensions and partly because Larry Bird has made questionable decision after questionable decision ever since. With a depleted roster, the Pacers struggled. Indiana won 44 games in 2004-2005 and exited the playoffs in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The fireworks began in December of 2005 when Ron Artest requested a trade. Rather than play the enigmatic forward until he could find a suitable deal, Bird placed Artest on the inactive list until he found a deal to his liking. Because of that decision, every team in the league low-balled their offers for Artest. On January 25th, 2006 Bird traded Artest for Sacramento Kings forward Peja Stojacovic. Ron led the Kings to a furious second half run and an improbable birth in the 2006 NBA Playoffs. Peja, an unrestricted free agent after the 2005-2006 NBA season, had no desire to resign with the woeful Pacers.
Bird was forced to trade Stojacovic to the New Orleans Hornets for the draft rights to center Andrew Betts (?) and cash.
The Pacers essentially received NOTHING for a former Defensive Player of the Year.
Did Artest need to be moved? Probably. But Bird should have handled the situation differently. The sharpshooting Stojacovic, used to playing for the perennial contender Sacramento Kings and under offensive mastermind Rick Adelman didn’t fit well in Carlisle’s schemes. He had no intention of being a part of the rebuilding process in Indiana either.
Bird reacquired forward Al Harrington for a first-round pick and cash in August of 2006 but that bright spot was short-lived. Larry the “Legend” dealt Harrington, Stephen Jackson, Sarunas Jasikevicius, and Josh Powell for the Warriors Keith McLeod, Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, and Ike Diogu.
With Harrington and Jackson in the starting lineup, the Warriors made the Western Conference playoffs and upset the #1 seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round. The Warriors won 48 games this year. Good enough for the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference, while the Pacers have continued to struggle. Dunleavy and Murphy have put up solid numbers but they haven’t succeeded in changing the Pacer franchise’s fortunes.
Fast-forward to today and rumors continue to circulate that the Pacers have agreed in principle to send Jermaine O’Neal to the Toronto Raptors for point guard T.J. Ford and the 17th pick in today’s NBA draft.
Ford is a lighting quick point guard. But at 6-0, 165 pounds he’s undersized. Jamal Tinsely appears to be on his way out. That leaves the 6-1, 175 pound Travis Diener (a player Bird reportedly likes) as his backup. Indiana is going to have problems matching up against the league’s bigger point guards.
If Bird’s history as GM is any indication, the Raptors will improve significantly with this deal.
The Pacers? Not so much.