He inherited a capped-out team with mediocre talent, no chemistry and little hope.
In three years, Larry Bird rebuilt the Indiana Pacers into a playoff team in 2011. Thanks to prescient maneuvering through trades and the draft, he had a nice core of young talent and plenty of salary cap space.
He also had a team with some glaring needs. In five key moves, Bird pushed his team to the next level and in the process became the only man in league history to be named Executive of the Year (2012), Coach of the Year (1998) and MVP (1984-86).
5. Acquiring Lou Amundson from Golden State for Brandon Rush (12/19/11).
Though not an eyebrow-raiser, it was indicative of Bird’s prescience. Though the Pacers already had picked up Jeff Pendergraph as a free agent, he came with some nagging injuries. And so, with veteran Jeff Foster also nursing a back that had limited his availability to 72 games in the previous two seasons, Bird made the move for Amundson. It wasn’t easy to give up Rush, an obvious talent, but he had not made enough progress to merit long-term investment. Amundson, on the other hand, stepped into the backup center role and teamed with Tyler Hansbrough to give the Pacers a high-energy, athletic and physical front-court tandem off the bench.
4. Acquiring Leandro Barbosa from Toronto for a future second-round pick and cash (3/15/12).
This was the final domino that pushed the rest of the roster and rotation into place. Adding the experienced, explosive Barbosa to the second unit gave Coach Frank Vogel the flexibility to use George Hill primarily as the backup point guard. When starter Darren Collison was sidelined with a sore groin late in the year, Hill moved in and hasn’t moved out. The Pacers have gone 12-4 with Hill in the lineup, including 5-2 in the playoffs. Barbosa has provided 3-point shooting and a much-needed attack mindset.
3. Acquiring Hill from San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, Davis Bertrans and the rights to Erazem Lorbek (6/23/11).
Though Bird had done extremely well with such selections in the past, landing Paul George at No. 10 in 2010 and Tyler Hansbrough at No. 13 in 2009, he knew the last thing the Pacers needed was another middling first-round pick. On draft night he engineered the deal to bring Hill, an Indianapolis native who starred at IUPUI before establishing himself as one of the key pieces in the San Antonio rotation, from the Spurs. It was a stunning move because the perception around the league was the Spurs would be more willing to part with veteran Tony Parker than Hill. But Bird pulled it off and Hill has brought a steady hand to the point, stabilizing the first unit with timely offense and steady defense.
2. Retaining Vogel as head coach (7/6/11).
One of the reasons the firing of Jim O’Brien during the 2010-11 season came as a surprise was the perceived lack of a replacement on the staff. Enter Vogel. Though an O’Brien disciple, Vogel made comprehensive changes to the identity, lineup and rotations and began preaching a message of positive reinforcement. The result was a 20-18 finish and a playoff berth in 2011. In the offseason, Bird had the opportunity to bring in a much more established, veteran coach but opted to stick with Vogel. The move has paid off big. Vogel quickly moved to hire Brian Shaw and Jim Boylen to round out his staff, giving the Pacers the combination of motivation, experience and technical savvy to deliver their strongest season in nearly a decade.
1. Signing David West as a free agent (12/13/11).
This was Bird’s master stroke, and he had to win a recruiting battle with Boston to acquire the quiet strength and leadership of the veteran power forward who had earned two All-Star berths in his years with New Orleans. The Celtics offered West the chance to win right away — but likely for just one year. Bird sold West on the depth, youth and chemistry of the roster, convincing him the Pacers had both a present and a future. Though West was coming off major knee surgery and needed time to regain his conditioning and confidence, he has gotten stronger and better as the season has worn on, emerging as the clear team leader in the playoffs.