On the heels of SB Nation's recent NBA GM Rankings, Pacers front office guru Larry Bird was lambasted as the worst GM in the league for his lack of "direction." Tom dove deeper into this being a bit of a questionable decision, though community lines remain torn on the issue.
There's no denying the lack of moves by an average Pacers team is going to draw questions from everyone, but the situation was very difficult to maneuver when Bird finally took over the reigns completely from Donnie Walsh in 2008. However, personally, I question how Pat Riley deserves to be first for doing what numerous other GMs did, except getting the benefit of receiving the prize thanks to assumed player collusion.
Regardless, very little was given to the Pacers situation in giving Bird any benefit of the doubt for a grade that still seems very much "incomplete." After all, this is the year where Bird will mark his weight as a GM in this league, not in having very little pull or valuable assets to move the past few.
Larry Bird has given us his "Three-Year Plan," and though it may lack "direction," it's still a process, but what of the situation former Pacers GM Donnie Walsh walked into? What about his "Eight-Year Plan?"
Donnie Walsh was named Pacers GM in 1986 after joining the franchise in 1984. The following quote is an excerpt from Steve Mannheimer's book Pacer Power!: The 1994 Wonder Season of the Indiana Pacers, a book Pacers fans should attempt to search out if they can, if only to relive the 1993-94 season:
"For so long," Donnie explained, "this has been a high-school and college area of fan support for basketball teams. The fans are accustomed to thinking terms of four year intervals. ... they can still misunderstand the pro game, mostly because their time sense of the big picture, so to speak, is working at a different rate.
"When I took over the Pacers in 1986, I realized we had a long way to go to build this team. The only way you can build a better team is through the draft or by trades.
"... But in '86, we didn't have the players to trade. Our team wasn't good enough then. So that meant the draft was going to main way to improve. And that would take me four years.
"And even then, even if you have the talent, it's going to take you three or four years to fine-tune it - and that's only if everything goes perfect. ... So when I took over I realized it was a seven or eight year process."
Would fans feel better if Bird lined out his "plan" in this sense? When Walsh took over the Pacers in 1986, he figured it would take eight years for them to be a really good team. As the Pacers reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 1994, his "eight year plan" was a success. Does it mean Bird's "plan" or "direction" cannot?
Before I begin, I unfortunately can not take first hand information on these events, I have to rely on my previous knowledge of the players, their statistics, the internet and writings, and their basketball cards (which were always strangely rosy in player descriptions) to get a full grasp on who these players I didn't see play were, since I was two when Walsh took over and have first memories as a Pacers fan during the 1993-94 season. If there is any more insight as to the reaction to the job Walsh was doing in his early tenure in addition to his acquisitions, those would be much appreciated to help round out the entire picture.
The "youth movement" was in full swing for the Pacers in 1986, who had nine players on the roster who were 25 or under. Of those, notables included Wayman Tisdale, Vern Fleming, and Steve Stipanovich. Clark Kellogg was only 24, but his career had already taken a massive hit by injuries.
1986 NBA Draft
Walsh drafted Auburn star Chuck Person with the fourth overall pick, also selected Greg Dreiling (2, 26). Four more players were selected, none of which signed or played with the Pacers, confirming that the NBA Draft was still at least four rounds too long in 1986.
Hired Jack Ramsey as coach; traded two second rounders to the Bulls for Kyle Macy (28 yrs., 8.6 PTS/2.2 REB/5.4 AST in 27 minutes); released Dwayne McClain (22, 3.5/0.7/1.5 in 10), Bill Garnett (25, 4.3/3.4/1.2 in 15), and Bill Martin (23, 5.0/1.5/0.8 in 11); traded Terrence Stansbury (24, 6.7/1.9/2.8 in 18) and Russ Schoene (hadn't played for Indiana since 1983, played in Europe) to Seattle for John Long (29, 10.0/1.6/1.3) and a second round pick.
The roster turnover in 1986 improved the Pacers by 15 wins, and put them into the playoffs for the first time since 1981. Person would be named Rookie of the Year, John Long found a career revitalization after falling out of favor in Detroit, and the other young assets (Tisdale, Fleming, and Stipanovich) showed improvement.
1987 NBA Draft and Summer
Walsh selected Reggie Miller with the 11th overall pick, also selected Brian Rowsom (2, 34). Four more players were selected, again, none played for the team. The saga with Reggie Miller is well known, with Walsh passing on local legend Steve Alford.
Traded second rounder to Milwaukee for Scott Skiles (22, 3.8/2.0/3.5 in 13 games); re-signed Steve Stipanovich and Vern Fleming; failed to tender Kyle Macy; signed Clinton Wheeler (1981 7th round pick, no NBA experience), lost Clark Kellogg to retirement.
Waived Brian Rowsom (four games played) and Clint Richardson (31-year old hadn't played a game in the season). The Pacers finished 38-44 and outside of the playoffs. Chuck Person became the focus of opposing teams and failed to adjust coupled with regression from Herb Williams and John Long. Wayman Tisdale and Fleming continued to improve.
1988 NBA Draft and Summer
Walsh selected Rik Smits with with the second overall pick. Also drafted Herbert Crook (3, 61) and Michael Anderson (3, 73). Much like Miller, the Smits pick was seen as a miss for a lengthy amount of time, especially as Charles Smith (third overall) exploded for the Clippers.
Lost Clinton Wheeler to the Hornets in the 1988 Expansion Draft; signed Anthony Frederick (1986 6th rounder), Richard Morton (undrafted free agent), and Stuart Gray (1984 Pacers second rounder); traded Ron Anderson to New York for Everette Stephens (1987 second rounder).
I can't see an impact pickup made in this summer at all. Looking at the lack of impact, coupled with the career ending injury of Steve Stipanovich prior to season's start...
Jack Ramsey resigns, Mel Daniels interim, George Irvine hired (and replaced by), Dick Versace hired as head coach; traded Wayman Tisdale and second rounder to Sacramento for LaSalle Thompson (27, 15.0/9.1/1.0 through 43 games) and Randy Wittman (29, 3.8/0.8/1.0 through 32 games); traded Herb Williams to Dallas for Detlef Schrempf (26, 9.5/4.5/2.3 through 37 games) and a second rounder; waived John Long.
The Pacers had a dreadful 88-89 season, finishing 28-54. Schrempf proved to be a valuable addition, as did the growth of Reggie Miller, Chuck Person, and Vern Fleming.
1989 NBA Draft, summer, and 1989-90 season
Drafted George McCloud with the seventh overall pick. This pick would be the worst of Walsh's early tenure, making it the third straight year he had drafted a question mark, even though Reggie Miller was budding into a young star. Traded Stuart Gray to Charlotte for second round pick Dyron Nix (2, 29).
Resigned Detlef Schrempf; lost Scott Skiles to Orlando in 1989 Expansion Draft; signed Mike Sanders (28, 9.3/3.7/1.6 in 26 minutes), Rickey Green (35, 4.6/1.1/3.0 in 63 games), and and Calvin Natt (32, 6.3/3.3/0.8 in 24 games).
This summer is worth mentioning as a question mark given the way the Pacers laid low again in the offseason, only resigning Schrempf and bunting their way to roster improvements on a 28-win team. The 1988 and 1989 offseasons seems strangely familiar to the Pacers 2009 or even 2010 offseason in regards to impact and action to a below average team that is waiting to see their current assets pan out.
As for the season, the Pacers finished 42-40 and made the playoffs. Reggie Miller named an All-Star; Chuck Person, Detlef Schrempf improved. Pacers find themselves in need of point guard help.
1990 NBA Draft, summer, and 1990-91 season
Drafted Antonio Davis (2, 45) and Kenny Williams (2, 46). Signed Micheal Williams (23, 6.9/1.4/3.5 in 22 games), lost Rickey Green to Philadelphia; signed Kenny Williams.
Dick Versace was fired after a 9-16 start, replaced by Bob Hill. Pacers finished the season at 41-41 and fell to the Boston Celtics in the most exciting five game series in NBA history. A lot of this series is up on YouTube, so give it a glance if you get a chance (this series featured the Larry Bird heroics in game 5 to prevent the massive upset).
Reggie Miller continued to be the leader, as Walsh put it, it was this season he realized they had three of the same player in Miller, Chuck Person, and Detlef Schrempf, who all continued playing well. Rik Smits struggled mightily in his third year, Micheal Williams was emerging as a potential PG prospect.
Walsh was entering his sixth summer, and despite two straight playoff appearances, the team hadn’t taken form yet. Miller and Person were the go-tos. Schrempf was your sixth man by default. Maybe Micheal Williams is something at the PG spot, and Fleming makes a serviceable backup. But those are your pieces. Smits struggled, McCloud still showed nothing, LaSalle Thompson wasn’t a viable option at PF, Greg Dreiling started 42 games. After five seasons, the Pacers had not improved a game.
1991 NBA Draft and summer, 1991-92 season
Dale Davis was drafted with the thirteenth pick. Walsh also selected Sean Green (2, 41). The Pacers stood pat the remainder of the offseason, only waving Mike Sanders shortly after the season began.
The team finished 40-42 and was swept out of the playoffs. There was very little change from the previous year in terms of production, though Micheal Williams averaged 15/8 as the starting PG. Chuck Person had an altercation with a cameraman, Smits still struggled to keep his starting job over Dreiling, McCloud was not panning out.
1992 NBA Draft and summer, 1992-93 season
Malik Sealy was selected 14th overall in the draft. The Pacers traded Chuck Person and Micheal Williams to Minnesota in exchange for Pooh Richardson (25, 16.5/3.7/8.4) and Sam Mitchell (28, 10.1/5.8/1.1) in hopes of answering the Pacers long term issue at PG.
The Pacers didn’t improve in the win column, finishing 41-41 and suffering a first round exit to the Knicks. Schrempf had moved to the starting lineup, Dale Davis had an impressive second year (averaging 9/9), Smits was being run out of town. Richardson wasn’t as big of a force as he was hoped to be.
1993 NBA Draft and summer
Walsh selected Scott Haskin from Oregon State with the 13th pick. Also selected were Thomas Hill (2, 39) and Spencer Dudley (2, 51). Larry Brown as hired as head coach. Walsh had wanted Brown for years, but didn't feel his team was mature enough to win under Brown until 1993. The Pacers signed Antonio Davis (1990 second rounder) and Haywoode Workman (25, 8.0/3.3/4.8); traded Sean Green to Philadelphia for a second rounder. Just before the season began, Walsh traded Detlef Schrempf to Seattle for Derrick McKey (26, 13.4/4.2/2.6) and Gerald Paddio (27, 3.9/1.2/0.8 in 41 games). In early December, the Pacers signed free agent Byron Scott (31, 13.7/2.3/2.7).
The fruits of this offseason were the culmination of seven years of building. The Detlef Schrempf trade was seen as a big swing in Seattle’s favor, but the Sonics bowed out in the first round with Schrempf as McKey and the Pacers lost in the Eastern Conference Finals. Rik Smits finally emerged as Dale and Antonio Davis had breakout years, all under the guidance of Larry Brown.
It took eight years for Donnie Walsh to get the Pacers out of the first round and into contention. From this season, the Pacers were guided to six Eastern Conference Finals and an Eastern Conference Championship. It’s impossible to imprint the legacy of a general manager in just three years, since doing so would paint Walsh in an unfavorable light.
Since taking over the team full time in 2007, Larry Bird has had to perform a difficult undertaking with troublemakers, no cap flexibility for years, and a need to rebuild with youth. We complain about Jim O’Brien, but the reason Walsh didn’t bring Larry Brown in earlier was because his team was too young to make use of his skills. The same can be said of this Pacers team and any number of coaches.
Walsh needed four years of drafting to get his long term pieces set. He used Chuck Person to gain long term assets, and drafted Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Antonio Davis, and Dale Davis as long term players. Even looking at Bird’s draft history, his worst pick is seen as Brandon Rush, who is nowhere near as big of a bust as George McCloud was
Bird has had three years to build through the draft and has appeared to find Roy Hibbert, with verdicts still out on Tyler Hansbrough, A.J. Price, and Brandon Rush (to be fair on Rush’s behalf). He has gotten so much praise with the potential of Paul George and Lance Stephenson that if only one pans out to the level they’re supposed to, this franchise will reap the rewards.
I would believe Jarrett Jack’s emergence and ridiculous contract were not in the plans as I suspect he was intended to be kept, much as Scott Skiles was. Bird’s signings of Earl Watson and Dahntay Jones are stop-gap signings that don’t upset any long term plans, much like Walsh’s signings of Mike Sanders, Rickey Green, and Calvin Natt in 1989.
One of Bird’s biggest strikes is that he stands pat, while Walsh stood pat with his young and painfully average (remember all those Indy .500 jokes?) team more than he probably should have. The bottom line is, well, what I’ve been preaching: it takes patience to fix this mess. There is no quick solution.
Bird is not the worst GM in the league because he doesn’t make moves just to make moves. If there is a long term plan in effect, a direction that seems so laughable, Walsh needs to made guilty of it after three years as well. And for the love of Sunday, if Pat Riley is the best GM in the NBA right now for essentially winning the lottery, maybe this list isn’t so accurate after all.