Larry Bird helped build the Indiana Pacers team that took the Miami Heat to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and after a year-long hiatus, he's back to put the finishing touches on a championship-caliber squad.
The Pacers announced Bird's return to the role of President of Basketball Operations—which he previously held from 2003-2012—on the team's official site. Said team owner Herb Simon: "When he left last July, Donnie [Walsh] and I both told him the door would be open for him to come back when he's ready. Larry had a huge impact on this team and where it is now, so it's fitting that he comes back at this time."
It's great that Bird claims to be "recharged" and in better health, but seeing the team he built get so close to knocking off the eventual NBA champs had to have helped hasten his return. If the Pacers were going to start challenging for NBA titles, he probably didn't want to miss out.
And that's really the first thing to mention in the discussion of what Bird has to do to take Indiana to the next level; as currently composed, the team is almost there already.
Still, there's some work to be done before the Pacers can make that difficult last step toward a championship.
We learned during the 2013 NBA playoffs that Indiana's two young cornerstones, Paul George and Roy Hibbert, were each ready for prime time. Thanks to George's emergence as a true two-way star and Hibbert's interior dominance on the biggest stage, the world is now apprised of the kind of young talent the Pacers possess.
But neither George nor Hibbert are done improving.
George must work to improve his offensive efficiency. He shot just under 42 percent from the field and made only 36 percent of his three-point attempts during the 2012-13 season. There's nothing catastrophically wrong with George's stroke, so the best path toward improvement in this area is probably better shot selection.
Well, that and a higher conversion rate around the basket. There's no way a player with George's athleticism should shoot just under 56 percent in the restricted area, a figure right around the league average.
George is already one of the NBA's premier defensive stoppers, so even if he made no improvement whatsoever to his offensive game, he'd remain firmly stationed somewhere among the league's top 20 players.
In addition to George, Bird must hope for (or somehow facilitate) growth among Hibbert, George Hill and Lance Stephenson.
Hibbert must prove he can play at the level he showed during the postseason for a full year, rather than starting so poorly in the season's first half and gradually rounding into form.
Hill has to improve his ball-handling in general, but especially in the pick-and-roll. As the team's primary decision-maker, he simply must take ownership of Indiana's turnover woes. If he gets more comfortable with splitting the double-team in pick-and-roll sets (something coach Frank Vogel actually forbade him from doing at times last year), the Pacers could become a much more dangerous offensive team.
Stephenson's job is simple: turn into a knockdown shooter from the corners. He attempted just 60 corner threes during the regular season, making a respectable 37 percent. But in today's NBA offenses, players like Stephenson—who don't handle the ball and are primarily used in transition and as floor-spacers—better accuracy from the corners is a must.
It should go without saying that the Pacers will exercise their team option on Stephenson, keeping him around for one more season at less than $1 million. Bird has been away for a year, but he's not stupid. Stephenson is among the league's best bargains.
Improve the Bench
Anyone who watched the Pacers last year for any length of time could tell you that the five-man starting lineup of Hill, Stephenson, George, David West and Hibbert was phenomenal. Similarly, viewers of the Pacers—if they were being honest—could also tell you that the team's entire cast of reserves was a joke.
The numbers bore that out: Among five-man units that played at least 500 total minutes last year, Indiana's starting five posted the third-best net differential in the NBA. Only the starting units of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies (post-Rudy Gay) did better than Indiana's plus-12.3 points per 100 possessions last year.
When you consider that the team's overall differential was just plus-five points per 100 possessions, it's not hard to figure out that whenever Indy's bench players entered the game, the team suffered.
D.J. Augustin and Sam Young, rotation mainstays for much of the year, are both unrestricted free agents and will almost certainly not be back. In their places, Bird and the Pacers front office must find at least a couple of serviceable backups.
"Serviceable," by the way, would represent a massive upgrade.
Jarrett Jack, Devin Harris and Jerryd Bayless are all going to be available after July 1, but they're hardly the only options. Up front, Carly Landry could represent a nice version of David West "lite" in spot minutes off the bench.
Of course, if some guy by the name of Danny Granger is healthy enough to join the rotation, that could change everything.
The Granger Conundrum
Granger is owed more than $14 million next season in the final year of his deal. If Bird and GM Kevin Pritchard were so inclined, they could probably turn Granger into a handful of future assets on the trade market.
But if the Pacers are looking at taking a shot at the title in the immediate future, it might be best to keep Granger around as a versatile sixth man off the bench. His presence in the second unit could provide relief for the Pacers ball-handlers (whoever they end up being), and his scoring prowess would help keep the reserves afloat as the starters rested.
And at the end of games, it's possible that the Pacers could utilize Granger in a number of intriguing lineup configurations.
There are many options, and what Bird's Pacers do with the guy that was their best player for a number of years is going to have a major effect on the team's ability to move forward.
Re-Sign David West
Unlike the Granger situation, there are no options here. The Pacers must bring West—an unrestricted free agent—back. The gritty power forward embodied Indiana's tough, defense-first identity as much as anyone on the roster.
And although his value as an emotional leader was vitally important, his more tangible work on the boards and in the pick-and-roll was probably as critical to the team's success. There aren't many players in the league who combine the kind of no-nonsense toughness, locker-room leadership and on-court production that West does.
With about $49 million earmarked for next year's salaries, the Pacers can afford to pay West at least the $10 million he made last year and still bring in a couple of viable bench players.
So, there you go: Bird has to foster an environment in which the Pacers current players can grow, find a couple of bench assets, sort out the Granger situation, and make sure West is in an Indiana uniform next year.
If he can handle those tasks, the Pacers could very easily be the league's best team next season. And if it doesn't seem like there's too much on Bird's plate, it's only because he did such a masterful job of putting this roster together in the first place.
Now all he has to do is put on the finishing touches.
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