Knicks, Pacers back in playoffs
Thanks in part to Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird, this year's Eastern Conference playoff bracket looks as if it came out of the 1990s.
Walsh and Bird worked together with the Indiana Pacers until Walsh left for his hometown New York Knicks in 2008. Now, Walsh, the mentor, and Bird, his protege, are seeing success in their rebuilding projects. The Pacers will play at Chicago on Saturday in the first round of the playoffs, and New York will play at Boston on Sunday.
The two franchises shared one of the NBA's most heated rivalries in the '90s. The Pacers made the playoffs all but one year between 1990 and 2006, and the Knicks made it every year from 1988-2001.
Both teams have struggled since the key players from those runs, Indiana's Reggie Miller and New York's Patrick Ewing, moved on. The Pacers had missed the playoffs four straight years and the Knicks hadn't made the postseason since 2004.
Walsh, the former Pacers CEO, turned New York's fortunes when he lured Amare Stoudemire in free agency, then traded to bring Carmelo Anthony to the Big Apple. Bird, the Pacers president, rebuilt with youth - Danny Granger is the only Indiana starter to complete more than three full seasons in the league.
Walsh has admired Bird's handiwork from a distance. Bird, in turn, respects what Walsh has done as Knicks president.
''I always root for Donnie,'' Bird said. ''He went about his business a little different. New York's got the money. It's a completely different situation.''
The Pacers hired Bird as team president in 2003, before the infamous brawl between Pacers players and Pistons fans in 2004. Later, several Pacers had injury issues and problems with the law and the team decided to make talent-depleting trades and cuts. After Bird took full control of basketball operations, the Pacers went 36-46 in 2008-09 and 32-50 in 2009-10.
Indiana had a 17-27 mark this season before firing coach Jim O'Brien and replacing him with Frank Vogel. The team has a 20-18 record since.
Bird said Walsh taught him patience, and that has served him well. Rookie Paul George starts, Tyler Hansbrough and Darren Collison are in their second year and 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert is in his third season. Now, the Pacers will go into the offseason with young talent and salary-cap space. Even with possible labor issues around the corner, Bird feels confident that the Pacers are in prime position to become a force in the East.
''We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,'' Bird said. ''We think we need some veteran leadership in here, veteran players in here. We don't know what the rules are going to be, but whatever happens, we know it's going to be in our favor.''
Bird is pleased with this step, but he expects more.
''We're not even close to where we think we want to be as a franchise,'' he said. ''When you win 37 games to get into the playoffs, you're happy about that. We think that what we're looking at and how we want to rebuild this, we definitely want to get a lot more wins than we're getting.''
New York hadn't had a winning season or won a playoff game since 2001.
''The Knicks have not had a playoff team for a long time, and we needed a complete change,'' Walsh said earlier this season. ''It's not that there weren't good players here, it's that they didn't fit together.''
So Walsh went to work. His move to give up Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari, guard Raymond Felton and center Timofey Mozgov to get Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups was considered risky by some, but the Knicks have won seven of nine heading into the postseason. New York finished this season with a 42-40 record after going 29-53 last year.
Miller, a TNT analyst who perhaps is best known for torching the Knicks and arguing with superfan Spike Lee, is happy for the Knicks because of Walsh.
''I'll always pull for anybody that Donnie Walsh is associated with, even though it pains me that it's the New York Knicks,'' he said. ''I want Donnie to do well, and I'll always want Donnie to do well because I believe in everything that he's taught me and says and does because he's always been honest and fair.''
Miller said New York's resurgence was a welcome change.
''It's great for our league,'' he said. ''It's great to have the No. 1 media market relevant again.''