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Larry Bird's Exit a Warning That the Pacers Could Be in for a Tough Summer Ahead

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterApril 28, 2017

FILE - In this May 5, 2016, file photo, Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird speaks at a press conference in Indianapolis. A person with knowledge of the situation tells The Associated Press that Larry Bird is stepping down as president of the Indiana Pacers. Kevin Pritchard is being elevated from general manager to the team's new president of basketball operations, the person told The AP. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the team has not announced the move. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Good for Larry Bird.

Bad for the Indiana Pacers.

Probably a new team for Paul George.         

Bird's decision to step down as Pacers president, as reported by The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski on Friday, should serve as a blaring horn of alarm throughout the Hoosier State that he knows there is no place for this Pacers team to go besides rebuilding...which is the very state of being that Bird has steadfastly avoided dealing with for basically his entire life.

Bird's exit is also a siren song for Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers and perhaps Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics to get their trade bids in to Bird's replacement, Kevin Pritchard, and make them as sure and sweet as possible. The cost-conscious Pacers simply cannot afford to lose George for nothing a year from now when he becomes a free agent.

This is more a dead-end situation for George and the Pacers than one brimming with real hope, no matter what any of them (or Bird when he addresses reporters Monday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse) says publicly. There are no indications that Bird, 60, is having major health issues. So his stepping down is an acknowledgement that this problem fundamentally is not going to be solved, and it's going to take more time and effort than Bird wants to invest.

That's his prerogative, and he has made it clear he goes year by year regarding this job. He's not beholden to anyone, and he refreshingly doesn't act as if he is.

The one best-case scenario for the Pacers to keep George is for him to ball out next season in much the way he figured out how to as the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for six games in April, taking more of a Russell Westbrook mindset to his problem. That might get George the All-NBA standing he'll probably miss this season and the logical incentive to re-sign for far more money with Indiana than elsewhere. All good for the Pacers, right?

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But there's an issue with that. Bird has tried to get George not to be so focused on himself in recent years, in the belief that the Pacers need more teamwork to find legitimate success. Bird has pushed for more dirty work and free-throw attempts from George, with less of the pretty solo stuff from the perimeter. So it's not as if this stunning PG-centric best-case scenario would in any way be G-rated if it were still Bird's theater. George also just played great in the first round this year, and the Pacers still got swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Bird comes from a different world of NBA superstar. With the Celtics, he was happy to be a great employee. What NBA superstars want now for themselves and their brands is more up Magic Johnson's alley, and it's no coincidence that Johnson is in as Bird gets out.

A big part of this saga also is how Bird underestimated the weight of George's opinions and desires as he went about rejiggering the Pacers in recent years. The idea that George would just go play power forward because he was told to was met with a statement that he was "not too thrilled on it." The experiment lasted all of four games.

Indeed, George, like many superstars of this era, has his own agenda.

So now Bird will recede into a planned consulting role. This is a lot like what he did in 2000, when he committed himself to stepping down as Pacers head coach even though his aging team filled with free agents made it to the NBA Finals.

Bird knew then how difficult it would be even to be good again, so he opted out…and the 2000-01 Pacers with Isiah Thomas in Bird's place as head coach dropped off to 41-41.

Bird came back in 2003 to join the front office alongside Donnie Walsh. The years since have been very much OK, which is a reflection of Bird's commitment to avoid rebuilding. He obviously won in epic fashion as a player, and as an executive that competitive fire has guided his stubbornness not to be bad to get good.

The Pacers haven't picked any higher than 10th since 1997, a product of the team's competence at putting out a palatable product most every season. George was chosen 10th in 2010, and (despite trading 15th pick Kawhi Leonard in 2011) Bird was voted 2012 NBA Executive of the Year by his peers for constructing a team that went 42-24 (in a lockout-shortened season) without the usual top picks or free-spending free-agent boosts.

Along the way, Bird has acquired reliable professionals such as Al Harrington, Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy—players just talented enough for Bird and his competitive urge to take on salaries that general managers with more long-term visions sought to unload. You could say the same about Monta Ellis in 2015 and Al Jefferson in '16 getting long-term deals from the Pacers.

Last summer, though, Bird shook things up again, and his team got worse. That leaves the Pacers with some difficult choices. If Jeff Teague, who took on much of George's usage this season, re-signs with Indiana with the gargantuan raise he's due, it will limit any other moves of consequence besides the hoped-for growth from Myles Turner.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

The drive to keep competing remains quite a temptation for the greats of the game, which is why Johnson is running the Lakers, Michael Jordan is running the Hornets, Phil Jackson is running the Knicks and Pat Riley can't give up running the Heat. Jerry West, for all he has accomplished and now with a cushy gig plus a generous ownership stake in the wonderful Warriors, wanted much more than people know to go back and make the calls for the rebuilding Lakers, according to league sources, even as he's about to turn 79.

But Bird isn't the same as those guys. He has always been a little more clear-headed despite being so hard-nosed. Always his own man.

Larry's legend is secure, and he certainly doesn't sweat it as much as the others.

And that's why with a tough offseason and potential rebuild ahead, Bird is comfortable choosing not to deal with the headaches anymore. When you don't have to prove anything to anyone, you are free to do as you please, and Bird is now free of the tough summer ahead in Indiana.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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