In a new piece by SI’s Ian Thomsen, Larry Bird says a lot of stuff we have heard before. He restates that the his contract (along with that of GM David Morway and all the coaches, the scouts and even the trainers), is up after this year. And he notes that most of the veteran players are also on expiring contracts and probably will not be back next fall.
We have heard all this, although the last seven words in the following quote do make this sound like a more definitive statement about owner Herb Simon’s mentality than previous, more ambiguous insights into Larry’s expectations for next season.
“Everybody on the basketball side is up except for a few players,” Bird said of the Pacers’ contracts that will expire this summer. “All of the trainers, coaches, scouts, me, [GM David] Morway, everybody in the office — we’re all up. As much money as we’ve lost at this franchise, the owner should have the opportunity to pick and choose who he wants to run the basketball side or coach the teams, and he’s probably going to make some changes.
But that presumption aside (one that, to me anyway, makes it sounds like at least Morway won’t be back), he is just saying that the team has a ton of flexibility.
“After this season you get to start with a clean slate, and how many teams in the league do that or ever have done that? I’m proud of the fact he’s got options, because he never had that before.”
Since this is nothing new, I’m burying the lede, which is a another pretty definitive, unambiguous statement that this team is not trading Danny Granger.
In an era defined by the departures of LeBron James and Chris Bosh (with reports that Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul are soon to follow), the Pacers are built around a young star who has been adamant in wanting to stay in Indianapolis. Bird doesn’t take Granger’s loyalty for granted.
“There are rumblings the Pacers might trade him,” Bird said of Granger. “He’s been a trooper, and I’d rather bring people in here to help him out rather than to trade him. I sat him down and told him what we were going to do three years ago, and he was all in. He gets frustrated, but that’s all.
“The thing is, if he ever came to me and asked me if I would trade him, that’s different. But Danny has never done that.”
I’m not sure you can make it much clearer than that.
The rationale behind this is something that many people who follow the NBA, but not the Pacers, don’t understand. Why wouldn’t you trade Granger for young assets and draft picks and then use some of your cap space on similarly promising guys and start an earnest rebuild around guys who are not nearly 28-years-old and don’t make $11-12 million per year?
I totally get why people would think that way.
Dump the vets and hopefully you become the Thunder. Or maybe you don’t catch that type of lightning in a bottle, but you can at least become something like the Clippers or the Kings and have a few exciting, young, uber-talented players to build around. That’s a base that could theoretically lead to a championship.
But thinking that the Pacers would do that probably means your don’t understand the how fragile this franchise is right now.
It may be easy to forget for national analysts, but this team is still far from recovered from the Jail Pacers era and, part and parcel to that, the Malice at the Palace. People in Indiana are by and large still not interested in this team and they do not go to the games. And it’s not only because the on-court product is mediocre. The franchise remains in a the midst of a lengthy reputation rehabilitation and there is little aside from time or a 55-win season (or maybe Blake Griffin in blue and gold) that is going to change that within the next 12 months. Or even the next 24.
It’s one thing to have a disillusioned, disinterested fan base. The Knicks went through that for years. But it’s altogether another thing when the franchise has also been hemorrhaging millions of dollars for a decade. The financial position of Pacers is still murky at best and deeply troubling at worst. And as we just saw with the Hornets, the market for teams in less-than-appealing locations (from a business perspective … nothing against Indianapolis … it’s a lovely place) is uncertain at best.
So for this franchise, with this fan base and these financial reports, bottoming out and having a few seasons of sub-25 wins is just not prudent from a management perspective. What if that doesn’t work out? What happens when people care about this team even less? What is below irrelevance? Kansas City? Seattle?
I have to think that Herb Simon wants to make sure that this team is on a more sound foundation, both on the court and in terms of finances, in a few years than it is right now. That has to be his concern above all else. He isn’t getting any younger (he’s 76), and the rise of this franchise during the 1990s is something that I believe he takes great pride in. He wants to be a good steward for professional basketball in Indiana as it enters the post-Herb and Mel Simon era. He won’t be here forever, but he wants the team to be.
To roll the dice now and hope to get a guy like Tyreke Evans, and then hope that a promising first year by that like-Tyreke guy doesn’t revert to futility the following season (*cough* the 2010-11 Kings *cough*), just doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is a huge risk with an unthinkable downside. There is now finally some stability at the end of the tunnel after six or seven years of hell/purgatory. Now, the Pacers look to be well-positioned to take a relatively young nucleus, add a few pieces and come out on the other end with a solid team. Not a great team mind you, but a solid one.
This mentality oozes from Larry Bird’s comments above.
And with such an plan, it isn’t hard to see them following the path of the Atlanta Hawks. You get one guy similar to Joe Johnson through free agency, hope to trade for a guy like Jamal Crawford and you put them in a rotation with Granger, Roy Hibbert, Darren Collison, Paul George, Tyler Hansbrough and hopefully one or two other consistent contributors. In the past threes seasons, with a roster of players who have grown increasingly cohesive and individually experienced, the Hawks have won 37, 47 and 53 games. The Pacers could quite possibly achieve something similar.
But, detractors would argue, Atlanta has also flamed out in the second round of the playoffs the past two years. Thus, following that type of path seems nonsensical to many NBA followers who view the association in a “title or bust” perspective. The Hawks are now the fifth best team in the East with seemingly no hope of becoming better than the Heat, the Magic or the Bulls in the next few years. Why would any team want to follow that path?
Because it makes sense for the Indiana Pacers.
In Atlanta, there is still little excitement about a 53-win team. But Simon and Bird, I think, believe that there would a professional basketball revival in Indiana if they could put a hard-working team on the court that competed every night. And I agree with that. Like in the 1990s, I think this state would get behind a squad that, even if flawed, is exciting and can beat any team on any night.
The goal, if not winning a title, is to rebuild the franchise — and not just in the sense of gambling to hopefully get some good players, but in terms of again making the Pacers something that Hoosiers want to care about. Relevance first. Trying to build a true contender second. And who knows, maybe if all the chips land perfectly somehow in stage one, you have put an ensemble cast of good-not-great players that become some facsimile of what the 2002-2008 Pistons were.
And with Granger being one of the few things that any fans have been able to care about in the past few years, the road to truly rebuilding the franchise, on the court and in the world of local public opinion, does not include trading Danny. He is the face of the franchise and trying to re-brand the team around Roy Hibbert or Darren Collison or Paul George right now would be a hard sell to anyone but the most diehard Pacers fans (of which there are roughly 500 left tops).
There is one other key comment from Larry Bird in this SI piece that should further solidify the fact that the Pacers are committed to a slow rebuild around a group of guys that the team believes can become a cohesive nucleus for success.
Bird has consistently sought to win games instead of trying to improve the Pacers’ position in the lottery. Last year they went 10-4 over the final month to fall to No. 10 in the draft.
“We don’t do that,” he said of losing as a strategy. “That’s not my mentality. This is a professional league, you’re supposed to be professional and play every game like it’s your last game and play to win. There are a million teams that tank, and I don’t know what the league can do about it. But you don’t want to send the message to your team that you want to lose. Right now, we’re starting to play young guys, but it has nothing to do with the draft — it’s how our team is set up looking for the future. Our future is our young guys. We’ve got to give them time and I think I can win with them.”
And when he says “you don’t want to send the message to your team that you want to lose,” I think that’s a message that this franchise is currently unwilling to send to its fan base. That message would be the subtext of any deal including Danny Granger.