A few years ago, Larry Bird was the leading candidate for worst GM of not just the year, but the decade. He presided over the Pacers becoming the thugs of the NBA after the now infamous brawl in Detroit, then gutted a roster that was widely predicted to have enough talent to win the Eastern Conference before watching as the Pacers plummeted to a new franchise low in wins.
It was worse than when SNL replaced Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey with Abby Elliot, Bill Hader and Bobby Moynihan.
A once proud fan base deserted the team in droves, causing speculation that the Pacers might be forced to move from Indiana. For such a discussion to even be taking place was treasonous and hard for loyal fans to shallow. Have you seen the movie Hoosiers?! Have you heard the tag line, "In 49 states it's basketball, but this is Indiana?!" It was desperate times in basketball's heartland.
Hometown hero Larry Legend was driving the beloved franchise into the ground.
The Pacers had not only become the laughingstock of the NBA on the court, off the court players were getting arrested/suspended so quickly it was like watching a season of the Wire. It didn't help either that Bird had drafted the likes of Erazem Lorbek, David Harrison, Ryan Reid, Nathan Jawai and Shawne Williams (only Shawne Williams is even still in the NBA).
It also didn't make matters any better that Bird hired a dufus of a coach in Jim O'Brien, a guy who promised to return the Pacers to the playoffs in his first season but ended his stint as Pacers' coach three years later with a .417 winning percentage.
Yet for all the turmoil, all the negative publicity and all the losing seasons, Pacers owner Herb Simon agreed to keep Larry Bird around. When it was announced after the 2007/2008 season that Donnie Walsh would be leaving for the New York Knicks, Larry Bird assumed almost full control of the team, declaring he had a three-year plan to turn the Pacers around.
Maybe because events such as the fight in Auburn Palace and the numerous suspensions and arrests were out of Larry Bird's hands, or maybe because Bird was a Indiana legend, the Pacers agreed to let the former NBA great and onetime Pacers coach of the year see his rebuilding project through.
Right on schedule—exactly three years later—it's starting to pay dividends. Rarely does a professional sports franchise suffer such humiliation without major front office overhauls, yet Herb Simon didn't waver from his commitment to Larry Legend. Bird acknowledged things would get ugly and they did, but he also promised to deliver on his plan of building a contender by the fourth season. So far it looks like he will.
Without a star player to build around (sorry Granger, you aren't that guy), Bird has gone the youth movement route, finding low key but quality starters. His first big move (both literally and figuratively) was to make a draft trade move for the rights to Georgetown's Roy Hibbert.
With his 7'2" franchise center in place and an all-star forward in Danny Granger, Bird knew he had two of the three key pieces in place. Heading into this season, Bird also knew that the Pacers were still lacking a true point guard, the NBA's most important position.
A month before the season began, Bird pulled the trigger on a trade landing up-and-coming point guard Darren Collison from New Orleans. It raised eyebrows around the league with many people saying the Pacers had just pulled off highway robbery. Could Indiana really be on the right track?
With the emergence of Tyler Hansbrough (who is more of a sixth man than a starter) the Pacers suddenly had a young core group that could challenge for a playoff spot.
Enter 37-year-old Frank Vogel. After Bird finally fired Jim O'Brien the end of January, Vogel assumed the interim head coaching label leading the Pacers with a fiery passion and enthusiasm and guiding Indiana to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. While the Pacers bowed out to the top seeded Bulls after five games, the heart and energy the Pacers showed at the end of the season and especially in their playoff series were positive signs going forward.
Finally after several years of lackluster enthusiasm, fans and the players alike seem excited about the future in large part to Larry Bird's three year plan. With Danny Granger the only starter above 25 (he is 28), the Pacers have a young core nucleus from which to build on.
If Bird can find a quality shooting guard in the draft (he barely missed on O.J. Mayo in February), look out NBA Indiana might be back; a statement that three years ago no one thought possible with Larry Bird at the helm.