NBA legend Larry Bird has pieced the Indiana Pacers into a championship contender as president of basketball operations, but his success as an executive dates back to his Boston Celtics days working for the incomparable Red Auerbach.
In a must-read article by Sports on Earth’s Shaun Powell, Bird divulged lessons he learned from the former Coach and Executive of the Year, including advice that relates to the start of his own professional career.
As Powell writes, “(Auerbach) took advantage of a loophole and drafted Bird in 1978, a year before his graduation. According to the rules then, Bird was draft eligible because he’d already spent four years in college.”
Selecting the Indiana State standout was a roll of the proverbial dice, considering that the eventual three-time MVP wouldn’t be able to play for Boston until the following year. Nevertheless, Auerbach weighed the odds and made a calculated decision.
“Red later told me that a year was not a long time,” Bird told Powell. “That stuck with me.”
Having a long-term outlook certainly helped aid the development of Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson. All of those guys have emerged as All-Star-caliber talents without bursting onto the scene immediately in the pros.
Since he came up big in the draft, Bird wasn't afraid to ship away picks in order to improve the team. He dealt 15th-overall pick Kawhi Leonard to the San Antonio Spurs three years ago in exchange for defensive-minded point guard George Hill. Last summer, he sent Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and a future first-rounder to the Phoenix Suns for veteran forward Luis Scola—a move that could pay big dividends in a postseason setting where depth becomes a prominent factor.
If nothing else, the 2012 Executive of the Year hasn’t been afraid to make tough decisions such as trading veteran small forward Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers at the deadline as a means of improving the roster. Bird said the following of that choice, per Powell:
Trading Danny was the toughest thing I ever had to do. He’s the last guy I thought I’d trade. About 20 minutes before we made the deal, I told Kevin Pritchard (the assistant GM) that I gotta wait. I didn’t know if I could do it.
But I remembered what Red taught me. The franchise is always first. He said he had great players leave and people would say the franchise was going to fold and all of that. Well, that didn’t happen. The franchise is the most important thing and so in this case I had to do what’s best for the franchise.
Even during his playing days, Bird began to understand the value in doing what is best for the team. Auerbach consulted Bird about trading center Rick Robey, who was one of the legend’s best friends on the Celtics at the time. Bird was hesitant to OK the move but had no qualms when he learned the identity of Auerbach’s target.
“I asked who was he trading him for? He said Dennis Johnson. I go, ‘Dennis Johnson? Oh, yeah. You gotta make that deal,’” Bird said, per Powell.
The goal for the Pacers is to best the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, reach the NBA Finals and come away with a title once they get there. Doing so in a small market is no easy task when you consider the financial restrictions that accompany each move, but Bird has managed to turn what was a pipe dream into a reality.
“My goal is to take this small team in the small city and get there. Get a chance to win one,” Bird said. “We want the chance to be the last team standing. I want these guys to play for a championship. I know how tough it is to win one.”
The Pacers have sputtered in March by posting a mediocre 8-7 record, but they improved to 2-1 against Miami with an 84-83 win against the Heat on March 26.
That head-to-head matchup may ultimately decide who the Eastern Conference champions will be.
Indy is still looking to get over the hump, but Bird has put guys like George, Hibbert and Stephenson in a position to get the job done. Now they have to execute, just as Bird did for Boston time and time again.