Did Larry Bird Ruin the Indiana Pacers' Best Shot at an NBA Title?

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Did Larry Bird Ruin the Indiana Pacers' Best Shot at an NBA Title?
Michael Conroy

Indiana Pacers team president Larry Bird was only looking to tie up a few loose ends. He may have pulled one too many strings, though, and now the whole thing is unraveling.

It's been a while since the Pacers looked elite, longer still since they've deserved a spot on the short list of NBA championship contenders. Bird's tinkering, well-intentioned but misguided, set off a chain reaction that has rocked the Pacers' structure and threatened to collapse their championship ceiling.

It took Indiana 31 games to suffer its sixth loss of the season. Following Monday's 103-77 dismantling by the San Antonio Spurs, the Pacers have six losses in their last eight games.

This group bears almost no resemblance to the one responsible for bringing championship hopes to the Circle City early in the season. Although many of the pieces are still the same from the team that rattled off 18 victories in its first 20 games, that's about the only similarity between the Pacers of then and now.

Gone is the talk of a historically stingy defense. Since March 1, this is only the sixth-most efficient defense in the NBA (101.5 points allowed per 100 possessions).

Lost, too, is the tight-knit cohesion that fueled Indiana's rise as basketball's best blue-collar band of brothers. A club that used to be the source of frustration for the NBA's other 29 teams now just frustrates itself:

"It's awful, we've been in a downward spiral and we've been splintering a little bit," Roy Hibbert said after Monday's loss, via Michael Marot of the Associated Press. "We've had plenty of players-only meetings and plenty of sit-downs as a team with coaches and we've had some upper management in here, so I don't know."

No one seems to know what's wrong.

No one has a fix for the self-destructing offense. That's become painfully apparent as the Pacers have put up fewer than 80 points in five of their last six games (and only 84 in the other), shooting just 36.8 percent from the field over this stretch.

"Offensively we're just not getting the job done," Paul George said following Indiana's 14-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, via Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star. "I feel like teams when they play us, they're real comfortable. It's as simple as that. They're just comfortable against us."

Comfortable like the Pacers used to be themselves, perhaps? As comfortable as they were before Bird made what he thought was a tertiary move to shore up his bench and rocked this franchise to its core instead?

Darron Cummings

On paper, it looked like a no-brainer.

Bird drew rave reviews for his buzzer-beating deadline acquisition of swingman Evan Turner and big man Lavoy Allen. By moving out nothing more than the battered, bruised and expensive Danny Granger along with a 2015 second-round pick to the 76ers, Bird had bolstered his team with a young player capable of scratching one of this roster's biggest itches: offensive creativity.

Even if Turner's numbers were hard to trust on the openly tanking Philadelphia 76ers this season, he still entered the 2013-14 campaign on a two-year run of 13.9 points and 3.8 assists. Granger was giving the team only 8.3 points on 35.9 percent shooting before the trade.

"Despite Granger’s elder statesman status in their locker room, despite what seemed over 2013-14′s first half to be a pat hand, Bird felt the Pacers needed more," NBA.com's Steve Aschburner wrote. " ... He fixed something that others didn’t realize was broke. Broke, at least in terms of chasing down a Larry O’Brien trophy, anyway."

Rob Carr/Getty Images

But was it really broke?

The Pacers were 41-13 before pulling the trigger on that deal. They're just 11-10 since the trade, having defeated only two playoff teams (Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat) and racked up a net rating (minus-2.4 points per 100 possessions) that would be tied for 21st if extrapolated over the entire season.

This isn't a diatribe against Turner, although Pacers coach Frank Vogel doesn't seem to be a big fan of the former No. 2 pick. Turner's playing time is trending in the wrong direction (he logged a season-low seven minutes in Monday's loss), and it's hard to see what, if anything, could reverse that course.

What this might be, rather, is a case of Bird overthinking things.

The Pacers didn't need help. Sure, the offense encountered its fair share of lapses, but this was built to be a defensive power. As long as the old defense-wins-championships theory was still in play, Indiana's hand was one of the strongest at the championship table.

But Bird got greedy and more than a little shortsighted. He saw an obvious on-court edge to be gained, but didn't stop to think twice about the move's off-court ramifications.

It didn't take long to see that Granger was more than just another player in Indiana:

"You change the chemistry of the team," Granger said, via NBA.com's Jeff Caplan. "It can have different effects that are unforeseen. ... It's hard to come in in the middle of the season with a new team regardless of how good you are, that's very difficult to do."

Turner could theoretically replace Granger's production (he hasn't, by the way, averaging just 7.0 points a night on 40.7 percent shooting with Indy), but who was going to replace the veteran's voice inside the locker room? Bird himself has questioned the team's mental toughness, and this group was already missing the no-nonsense approach of former assistant (and current Denver Nuggets coach) Brian Shaw.

The Pacers needed an offensive lift, but they were surviving just fine without one. What had this team thriving, though, was a seamless system fully aware that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

Indy's roster, coaching staff and front office were all operating as one, all doing their part in pursuit of this common goal.

Granger's removal didn't just break that chain, it removed perhaps the only player capable of repairing such damage. Now, everything the Pacers fought for is in jeopardy, and the team has neither the tools nor the time to get them back.

Seth Wenig

Talentwise, the Pacers may be better off today than they were before the trade deadline. But this was never a group that dominated with on-paper ability. Intangibles are what made this team the power that it was, and those qualities are tangibly absent now.

"We're not playing the game the right way right now," George said, via Pacers.com's Scott Agness. "We're not playing for one another."

They're playing like a team lacking in trust and short on leadership.

Bird sought perfection, even though his team had found a way to keep up with the league leaders despite having a few noticeable faults. His players are paying the price for his meddling, as are the championship-hungry fans who will starve for even longer.

The on-court actors look lost right now. How could they not? Bird's unnecessary puppeteering has left this team trapped in a web of knots, all to fix a problem that never even existed.

 

Statistics used courtesy of NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.

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