May 12, 2011 - The big news two days ago was, after an exhausting five minute meeting, Indiana Pacers Herb Simon decided to retain Larry Bird as president of the organization.
This face-to-face sit down happened after weeks of speculation that Bird was on his way out, including a very credible report from Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo! Sports that Pacers executive Jim Morris contacted the San Antonio Spurs about hiring Dennis Lindsey to run Indiana's front office. Also mixed into this was the very public media slap fight between Bird and Simon, where Bird openly questioned Simon's willingness to spend money on the team, and Simon responding afterward that he was 'disappointed' in Bird's comments.
After all that, a five minute meeting places the Pacers and Bird back in the same place they were at the start of last season. Five minutes. I mean, why even meet in person? Simon could have just phoned Bird, told him he'd be retained year-to-year, and that's it. Why all the drama if the outcome was so 'meh'?
The more one looks at this, the more it seems that Simon and the Pacers don't know what to do with themselves.
One minute, Simon's openly expressing 'disappointment' with Bird's criticism of ownership in the media, and the next he's shaking hands with him, saying Larry can 'say anything he wants.' One minute, Jim Morris is actively trying to hire one of the hottest personnel executives in the NBA (Lindsey), and the next Herb Simon is saying Larry Bird can remain president 'as long as he wants.'
The 'as long as he wants' thing is also a bit weird seeing as there is no signed contract between Bird and the Pacers. Their agreement is, literally, a 'handshake agreement' because Larry Bird just isn't into signing contracts anymore.
No, really. I'm not kidding. It's an actual handshake.
What kind of professional sports team operates this way? A 'handshake agreement' with the man who is the team's overlord of basketball operations? Do you see such agreements in LA with the Lakers? In Chicago with the Bulls? Do you see the Indianapolis Colts doing 'handshake agreements' between Bill Polian and Jim Irsay? This is professional sports were talking about here! A $95 million dollar business that is funded with $33.5 million in taxpayer dough.
One has to wonder if Bird's comments about Simon's penchant for not spending didn't have an inkling of truth. Prior to Tuesday, the speculation was Simon wanted Bird back, but wanted to pay him less than $3 mill a year. Rather than re-sign Bird to a multi-year deal, along with team general manager David Morway, the Pacers are going to keep both men on a year-to-year basis. Basically, these two guys are lame duck GMs until the team regresses. When it does so, Simon will dump both of them at the drop of a hat, and likely try to hire Dennis Lindsey.
If you're a player on this team, how can you have any faith in the management when the owner pretty clearly isn't willing to fork over a substantial financial commitment to retain them? Why would you care what they think or say if you know they're just being retained year-to-year?
Obviously, the upcoming NBA lockout is probably affecting Simon's decision-making here. Simon doesn't want to sink millions into a new brain trust at Conseco only to see them sitting on their hands while the owners and players fight each other over revenues until December. Simon also doesn't want to make a change because local sentiment will always have misplaced loyalty to Bird.
However, despite that sentiment, the reality is he hasn't been very good at his job as either Pacers president or general manager (when he worked for Donnie Walsh). Remember, it was Bird who fired Rick Carlisle in 2007, stating that the team needed a 'change in culture.' This was the same Rick Carlisle Bird had hired in 2003 to replace Isiah Thomas. The reason for that move was a 'change in culture.'
This is also the same Rick Carlisle who, as coach of the Dallas Mavericks, out-coached Phil Jackson in the recent Mavericks v. Lakers playoffs series, which resulted in a four-game sweep of the Lake Show.
Carlisle's replacement was Jim O'Brien, and seemingly from day one the hire was a disaster. In January 2011, credible reports circulated that it was not Bird who wanted to fire O'Brien despite the club spiraling out of control and sitting ten games under .500. Bird had made several public shows of support for O'Brien, all but dismissing any suggestion the coach's job was in trouble. The decision to fire O'Brien in January was actually made by Herb Simon, and Bird had to do go along with it or face the chopping block himself.
With Bird's handpicked hire gone, the team turned to unproven and untested assistant Frank Vogel. Vogel then junked nearly everything O'Brien had installed within the team and looked to coach-up players who had lost their confidence under O'Brien's rule (like Roy Hibbert). The results were a 20-18 record and a playoff birth, the first since 2006.
Again, a coaching change Larry Bird did not want ended up saving the season. What other GM in this league survives that kind of slap in the face?
After listening to Indianapolis Star writer Mike Wells the other day on Indianapolis radio station 1070 The Fan, the sentiment I got from him is that most people aren't ready to judge Bird harshly until after the summer. This off-season, the Pacers will have $33.5 million in cap space. If Bird spends it wisely, the move to retain him was a success. If he screws up and blows all the money on Jamal Crawford or Andre Kirilenko, then folks can 'fairly' criticize him.
Here's my counter to that logic:
If you are 100% convinced Bird is the current and long term leader of this franchise, then what he does this off-season shouldn't matter. One either has 100% faith in their leader, or they don't. And if they don't, reason suggests that person shouldn't be the leader. And after nine years in the front office, we all kind of know how Bird runs things. So, what's with all the fence-sitting?
And if you're still sitting on the fence after nine years, doesn't that kind of tell you something?
I have no words for how silly it is to say one has to wait on judging Bird until whether or not he plunges the team back into cap hell this summer. It simply reeks of Simon looking for an excuse to dump Bird, fearing that tossing the 'French Lick Hick' on his butt at this stage will cause some kind of fan backlash at a time when people aren't cursing the Pacers for fleecing them with the CIB deal, but instead are optimistic about the team's future. It's important to remember that it was Bird who put the team in that position in the first place when he traded Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington for the bloated contracts of Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy back in 2007.
It's now four years later, and Dunleavy's contract is finally coming off the books.
At the end of the day, Herb Simon not signing Bird to a contract says all one needs to hear. The nonsense that Bird is 'done with contracts' is equally insulting to anyone with a micron of intelligence. Any personnel head unwilling to sign on the dotted line himself (but expects players to do it) is not someone you want running your basketball operations. This doesn't take into account the numerous botched deadline day trades (O.J. Mayo in 2011, D.J. Augustin in 2010), bad drafts picks (Shawne Williams, Brandon Rush, Lance Stephenson), and other questionable roster moves (T.J. Ford, Sarunas Jasikevicius) with Bird's fingerprints all over them.
I mean seriously! What the hell is Larry Bird's skin made of? Teflon!
The guy I personally feel a little sorry for in all this is David Morway. While Bird might not care about signing a contract, I highly doubt Morway is happy with the non-committal handshake Bird and Simon have going with each other. Morway is looking for a real commitment from Indiana. He's set up his family here, and he wants to stay with the Pacers long-term.
After twelve years here, my wife and I and my boys have become Hoosiers. We certainly want to stay and we're hopeful that, if, Larry decided to leave, that I would have the opportunity to run the franchise from the basketball side of it. It's something that would be a dream come true for me.
The other losers in this whole silly fiasco are the fans. Next year this time, we'll probably be in this exact same situation asking the same silly questions. Will Bird return? Will Morway return? If Vogel is signed to a contract, but the team regresses next season, does he return if Morway and Bird are sent packing?
It all should have been put to rest on Tuesday. Bird and Morway should have been signed to new contracts, ending any speculation as to their future. If one or both of them were unwilling to commit in that way, then both should have been jettisoned with the Pacers moving on to hire Dennis Lindsey or former-Trailblazer general manager Kevin Pritchard.
The personnel department has to be 'all in,' or not at all. 'All in' includes contracts, not meaningless handshakes, false smiles, and the kind of half-hearted effort to improve that has defined this franchise since Reggie Miller retired in 2004.
I truly hope Larry Bird is successful using the $33.5 million to improve the Pacers. Making the franchise relevant again is critical to Indiana area sports. But, if Bird screws this up, as he has done many times before, the damage to the franchise could be long-lasting. Indiana fans have already grown tired of the NBA and it's silly system of rewarding large market franchises at the expense of smaller markets. The Pacers must have a revival if the franchise is to become something fans think is worth spending money on.
One only needs to re-watch Game Four of the Bulls v. Pacers series (paying close attention to the stands) to see just how little interest Indiana fans have in this franchise after years of futility.