Larry Bird on the Pacers' Season So Far, Turner's Potential
by Mark Montieth Pacers.com Writer
Posted: Jan 20, 2017
The Pacers are three games over .500 at the halfway point of the season, a bit below the general expectation of many people, including Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird. That makes it a good time to sit down with the team president for his thoughts on his expectations for the rest of the season, Paul George's leadership, Myles Turner's potential, Jeff Teague's adjustments, the road record, rebounding issues and his future with the franchise.
Montieth: You have a lot of new faces and a new coach. It always takes time for a team to come together, so how is this team progressing in your opinion?
Bird: Before the season, I had the same question. How long do you think it will take them to come together? I'm from the old school. You put guys out there, they should figure each other out pretty quick. That hasn't happened so far.
I look at the game a little different than most people, and when I stepped on the court, even pickup games, you tend to figure out how other guys play, where they want the ball, how they're most effective. I always just took that for granted. Even the guys I played with in Boston, maybe their talent was better and they understood the game more, but we picked up on each other quickly. Even when we picked up players through trades or in the middle of the season, it didn't seem like it took that long to incorporate them. This year it's taken longer than I thought it would. I don't think we're playing anywhere close to what they're capable of. But in saying that, there's some growing pains.
One of the things we didn't know was how Myles was going to do. I don't think we've been fair with him 100 percent, as far as bringing him along slowly. There's growing pains with that. You take last year, coming back from his thumb injury, playing him some, having some success and then this year saying, 'Go get 'em, big boy, you're our new center,' … that's a little tougher than I could have imagined doing. I couldn't have done that at 20 years old. So yeah, it's going to take him longer.
Even now I see him, if he misses a shot, the next time down he's not even looking for a shot. He might take a contested three with a guy running at him, then the next time the guy will be four feet off him and he won't even look at the basket. Those are the type of things you have to learn to live with. I don't think we've been fair with him 100 percent. Jeff coming in, he got off to a slow start and wasn't making shots, I could tell he was frustrated and didn't know exactly what he was doing out there even though he had played in this league a long time and had had success.
To be where we're at, it's all right, but it's not where I want to be. The most frustrating thing is, our record on the road. With the athletic guys we have and the youthfulness mixed with the veterans, I thought we would be more competitive on the road. That's the one thing that's bothering me.
What do you think has kept them from winning more on the road?
When you go on the road, you have to play better than what you usually play. You know it's going to be tougher, you know it's going to be harder, most guys' stats are better at home than on the road. It's got to be a collective effort. You can't rely on a couple of guys in this league. I've always felt if you have three guys play real well, you're going to win the ballgame. On the road you've got to have three-and-a-half.
Do you think Myles should have been brought along more slowly?
Most people probably would have. But I ain't got time for that ----. I know what he's capable of becoming, I know what he's going to be if he stays healthy. I know his work ethic, I know his drive, I know his desire. He wants to be great and he wanted it yesterday. The reason I think he can do it and do it quicker is his mentality. The only way you can get there is by playing.
What do you think he can become?
I think he can become the best player to come out of the Indiana Pacers.
Is his best position center, or does it matter?
I think long-term he's a center. It will be two or three years before his body fills out, but I think he's going to become a big-time scorer and a big-time shooter. He's going to average over 10 rebounds a game and three or four blocks. If he stays healthy, he can become whatever his limits are, because he's going to work.
Does he need to develop a post-up game?
Yes, he does. That's part of it. I'm not happy he's out there shooting threes. I get on these coaches all the time, I don't want him to become a 3-point shooter until he perfects the other part of the game. He's gotten out there too quick. I don't mind him shooting a couple here and there. But if you're floating around out there, it's going to take away from what you really are. You can look around the league and say, 'Brook Lopez shoots it.' Well, Brook Lopez is going to win 18 games this year, you know?
The offense seems to be coming together, since the lineup was changed with Glenn Robinson III starting. Is that what you envisioned?
You've got to score points. Two or three years ago, I told (general manager) Kevin Pritchard, if we don't start scoring over (about) 105 points a game, we're going to be stuck in last here. This league is changing. If you watch these teams play, in another year or two, if you don't shoot 30 threes, you're not going to have a chance to win the game. Some teams are shooting in the 40s now. If you don't make a change and start scoring more points you're going to get lost in the shuffle. I saw that coming two or three years ago, and everybody thought I was crazy around here. I agree, you have to defend, but you better score. You can think you're going to hold teams to 90 points, but they're going to score a hundred-and-some anyway. It's just the way it is. You better score first and worry about the defense later.
How do you feel about your defense now?
I think it sucks at times (laughing). I don't think it's anywhere near where it should be. I think Paul still does an excellent job as an on-the-ball defender. I think Myles will still have his growing pains in the post. I think at times we're very good and other times very bad. But I still think you've got to score. You have to give up something to get something, and we've done that.
Statistically, rebounding is the biggest weakness. That's the one area where you're getting outplayed, giving up three or four rebounds a game. Can that be addressed with this current roster?
Look at it. Thaddeus Young averaged nine last year (and is now at 6.1). Paul is under his average from last year. Jeff Teague is probably averaging more than ever. Myles, we don't know, he gets 12 one game and four the next game. We miss a guy like Lance Stephenson and his rebounding. That really put us at another level, having a guy who could rebound like him.
Going into this year, I knew our weaknesses. I knew we had a small backcourt and rebounding was going to be a problem. Monta (Ellis) has been hurt, so we brought him off the bench, and when Glenn rebounds in big numbers we tend to win. We knew that was a problem for us. It's something we're trying to look at. Glenn's played all right, but he hasn't been as consistent as we like. When he plays decently we win, so going into the year we knew we had some holes in this team. We're not a perfect team. We're not spending $180 million on payroll. But with what we do spend, we try to get the best talent. We are who we are. Just plug in the holes as we go. My goal this year is to make the playoffs and have a solid team going in, and hopefully we have an opportunity to get to the second round and then worry about that then.
Speaking of that, I know the answer is always the same regarding trades, that you're always trying to improve the team and will if you can. But are there specific holes you're trying to fill?
You never know. Everybody says, 'They should make a trade.' Well, who's going to trade? There's always that talk out there. There's teams that call, (but) it's the biggest bunch of bull. This is the time you should be getting things done, but everybody wants to wait until the last second because they think they can pull off a big heist. I don't buy that. If you've got a need and you can fill that need, why not do it now?
There's some people out there talking about different players, but I don't think it's anything that can take us to the next level or make us any better right now. But you never know. We've never been reluctant to give up our draft pick if we think there's something special there that can help us and it's the same this year. If you can get a player you think can really help you, you probably should take a look at that. So, we're open to about anything.
It's been unfortunate that Stuck (Rodney Stuckey) has been hurt all year. People don't realize it, but he brings a lot to that second unit. He scores some points and plays physical and plays fast when he's got the ball. (His absence) has taken something away from us. We're looking forward to getting him back and seeing where we're at.
It seems like Paul George is adjusting to the role of a team leader. He's always had older guys around he could defer to. How do you see that coming along?
Guys come into this league and say, 'I want my own team one of these days,' and then sometimes they get it and look around and say, 'I don't know about this.' It's a little harder than what it really looks. It's demanding.
Paul's an exceptional player. He plays both sides of the ball. I remember a few years ago, he said, 'I think I need to score 25 this year.' I said, 'No, you're not a 25-point scorer.' He scores a lot of points when he gets to the line a lot. I think Paul can be a 20-, 22-point scorer and still get it done on the defensive end. That makes him be a complete player. If he scores 26 and his man gets 22, he's not as effective – then he's not the player everyone thinks he is. He's an exceptional two-way player. Paul's going to be fine in any situation. But this is a little different. This is his team.
Does he attack the basket the way you'd like? He doesn't get to the line a lot, and his dunks are way down from a few years ago.
People don't realize it, but he's played a lot of basketball in the last year-and-a-half coming off a significant injury. I'm not going to say he's tired. Probably mentally he's a little drained. He's not attacking as much as he should, or has in the past, I think he's giving in to the midrange at times instead of going to the hole, but overall I think he's playing well. He's still very effective.
You go back and think about it, how many games at home has he taken over in the last four to six minutes and really kept us there and made shots to win games? You always like your guys to do better, but Paul's done very well under the circumstances this year. This is two years in a row bringing in a lot of new guys and a new coach, so it's been pretty traumatic, the changeover in the last couple of years.
Does his hesitation to sign a new contract concern you at all?
I don't even talk to him about that. I told him before the season started, if you want to sign a max, it's up there, but I don't worry about that stuff. A player is going to do what a player's going to do. I always knew what I wanted to do. Obviously, free agency isn't like it used to be, and I was in a good situation, but you never know. Guys change teams all the time. He's going to do what's best for Paul.
The trade for Jeff Teague seems to be working out the way you hoped, the way he affects the game.
We wanted a point guard. I know last year there were rumors I was going to trade for him around this time. There's no way I was going to do that. I wanted to play out the last year with George (Hill). I didn't know down the road we would trade for Jeff Teague; I didn't even think that was a possibility.
We haven't had a point guard since Jamaal Tinsley. George Hill is a fantastic ballplayer, but a different type of player. He's an all-around player, can do a little bit of everything, a great fit for a team. But, (Teague) is two years younger, a point guard, he draws fouls, and now he's starting to find people at a high rate. He's playing really well.
I'm happy for him. It has to be tough coming home and playing in front of your family and friends, all the adjustments you have to make. And then getting off to a slow start … he kept battling and now he's playing very well.
It seems like Monta has accepted playing off the bench. At least he's going along with it. Has that put the pieces in place and addressed rebounding and defense and other areas?
We're playing better, and the numbers don't lie. Monta's been here and he knows how we do things. He wants to play better and he will play better.
That's his role now. If he comes out and starts playing really well and we go back (with him starting) and we're winning, you never know. But that's his role now. I wouldn't say he's accepted it, but he's going to live with it. He's been around, he knows what's going on. He's getting older.
It seems like he's one of the better leaders, the one who's most likely to speak out.
He'll talk. I'm not in that locker room all the time with them. People think at halftime I go in the locker room, but I don't do that. I think he's vocal, I hear him in practice sometimes. There's different kinds of leaders. I always though Reggie (Miller) was a fantastic leader by example. Mark was more boisterous but they worked off of one another. I've always said, lead by example. You get tired of hearing the same things -- same coach, same player, same things. Paul will say a few things here and there, but he's more of a leader by example.
You made a coaching change over the summer. How does Nate differ from the way things were done before?
I don't really want to say anything, because if I say something good about Nate it's interpreted as a slap (against Frank Vogel). But I'm very happy with the way things are going with (Nate).
You like his approach?
I've always liked his approach to it. I watched him from afar. He used to work for Kevin, and I liked the way he operated as an assistant coach. He had great respect for Frank. He loved working with Frank. He was very good for Frank. He does things a different way, and the way I like them to be done.
Part of winning on the road is being mentally tough. How do you address that from the front office? Can this team become mentally tough enough to win on the road?
I don't know. When we lost on the road (in Boston), you knew the next game we were coming out (strong). Not just our team, but I watch these teams, they come out the first half and just kind of play. You can see it. No wonder teams get out to 30-5 records. They come to play and take care of business and before you know it, the game's over. They're ready to go.
If you want to win every night, you have to go in there and take it. (Former Celtics president Red Auerbach) used to say, be the instigators and not the retaliators. On the road, you better be the instigator. I'm not talking about ripping people's heads off, I'm talking about playing hard, fighting for rebounds. Just like the other night (in the victory at Sacramento), Cousins would get the ball and drive, and it was like everybody would just back away from him. What are they doing? He's a reluctant passer most of the time, especially on the drive. Why aren't we in there swarming that guy? But they're just backing out of the way and he's doing whatever he wants to do. And you're sitting there saying, 'There's no resistance here.' You've got to be the instigator.
Having the record we have on the road… you go back to that Philadelphia game early in the season, we have a six-point lead with two minutes to go in the game, or whatever it was, Paul fouls a 3-point shooter in the corner and they get a four-point play. We go down and miss and then we foul them right away and the game's tied. Now they're going crazy there and we're on our heels and you know the game's over. We went from a six-point lead to tied just on bad basketball. Bad decisions. That's what kills you.
Brooklyn (in the second game of the season), we're up 10 points, we think we're going to walk away with it, they start cutting back door, they hit a couple threes, and things come unglued. Our teams the last few years have been notorious for blowing leads down the stretch. The New York game last night, Washington leads the whole game by 10 or 12 points, then New York comes back and takes the lead. Are you kidding me? Just by guys missing wide-open shots or making bad decisions. That's the time you've really got to toughen up, you've played the whole game, you've got a six or eight-point lead, that's when you've really got to be tough. We don't do that.
So, can you find that within, or do you have to bring in guys who can?
It's execution. Better picks. Making sure everybody gang rebounds. You don't need fastbreak points, you're fighting against the clock now. You can sit in a classroom all day and teach the game, but are they going to go out there and execute it? You watch Jerry Sloan's old teams, down the stretch, they executed every time. Or Popovich. You know why? Because they don't run a million plays. They set good back picks, they set good screens, and somebody's going to get a good look or drive to the hole. It's pretty simple, really.
Do you still feel like you're in this for the long term, or are you in a year-to-year situation?
I signed a one-year deal, so who knows?
You're not sure about next year?
I don't know. I never think about that until the year's up. I'm not 32 years old anymore. You know? That decision will be made later on.
Do you want to come back?
I have no idea. I like these guys. You know, you get frustrated with the team on the road when they're losing, but they are good guys (laughing). You can't go down there (for practice) without really enjoying them. There's not a lot of bickering or back-stabbing, none of that stuff. They're good guys to be around and we've been fortunate the last couple of years.
I go to these games, and I tell my wife this all the time (when they're not playing well), 'I don't get it. They had a great practice yesterday. I don't get it.' Usually that leads to good games. It's like in London, they had a helluva practice (before the game). They were running, they were making plays, making passes. I thought, 'Boy, they're going to be good tomorrow night.' And then they get blown out.