By making Dahntay Jones his first target of the summer, and ultimately landing the Denver free agent, Larry Bird sent a clear message about his priorities moving into 2009-10.
Dahntay Jones and Larry Bird share a laugh during Tuesday's press conference. (Frank McGrath/Pacers Photo)
"We're trying to guard people," he said Tuesday during the press conference announcing Jones' signing. "We talked about that right after the season. We know we're going to score points but on the defensive end we've got to get better.
"When we have an opportunity to get a young man that gives it all on the defensive end and is a very good defensive player that's going to take pride to bring everybody else with him, you're going to get better and that's an area we have to get better in."
Jones is an elite wing defender who started 71 games for the Nuggets last season, using his defensive aggression and relentless energy to help transform a high-scoring but ultimately non-threatening team bunch into a serious playoff team that reached the Western Conference Finals before falling to the eventual champion Lakers.
At 6-6, 210 pounds, Jones has the size and quickness to defend all three perimeter positions, not to mention the commitment.
"I'm very, very competitive and I take that as a personal challenge," Jones said. "I've been taught by the coaches I've played with that defense wins championships and if you don't pay attention to that end of the floor you're ultimately not going to be successful.
"I take that end of the floor personal and I take my assignment very, very personal. And I take that part of the floor as an integral part of being very successful."
Jones has intangibles that appeal to Bird
As Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant will attest, Jones is a guy who plays with an edge to go along with his energy and that, too, is a signature intangible for Bird's recent acquisitions, notably first-round pick Tyler Hansbrough. Mix in Josh McRoberts (a restricted free agent expected to re-sign) and there should be no wanting for intensity.
"I like energy guys, I like guys that play hard and when they come to practice they've got talent that brings everybody else up," Bird said. "Now we've got a few of them, our practices are going to be a lot better and we'll be able to compete on a nightly basis. It's all about giving the effort.
"You want players here that are going to give the effort every day and that's why we got Dahntay and we got Hansbrough and if we re-sign Josh McRoberts, there's a reason we do that we want players that play hard on the court and off the court and give back to the community."
Scoring not a high priority for Jones
What Jones won't be expected to do much is score. He averaged 5.4 points last season and his career mark is 5.1. His trademark is to strip an opponent in the open floor, take it the length of the court and finish with a monster dunk dubbed the pick and pound. Or fleece and flush. Or steal and slam. Take your pick.
"I'll probably be asked to score a little bit more but that's not an emphasis of mine," Jones said. "I'll take shots when necessary but my emphasis is to make sure I play defense on a daily basis."
Then again, he did make 11-of-17 from the 3-point line last season, by far the best mark of his career. So is he just warming up on that end?
Both Jones and Bird laughed when that question was posed.
"Just taking open shots," Jones said.
Whereupon Bird made his point.
"We've got plenty of 3-point shooters," he said.
Bird still active, but mum on Jack
Jones' contract, reportedly four years and $11 million, leaves Bird with room to make more moves in the market.
"We're still looking, there's no question about it," Bird said. "We've got some things going. Trades you never know about but we do have some money left to go out and look at some players.
"What we've been trying to do in the last couple of years is pick up pieces. We're going to try to get a core group of young men we can move forward with this franchise and if we have an opportunity, we're going to grab that piece. And we feel we can get a couple more maybe this year."
He offered no clues about his upcoming decision on point guard Jarrett Jack, who signed a reported four-year, $20 million offer sheet with Toronto. The Pacers have until Monday to either match the offer, allow Jack to sign with the Raptors or work a sign-and-trade deal.
"When you get an offer sheet that's seven days to match so we've got five or six days to think about it," Bird said. "Right now we're just looking it over and we'll talk to the owner and go from there."
When asked a follow-up, Bird brought the line of questioning to a halt.
"This is not about Jarrett Jack," he said. "It's about Dahntay."