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A Look Back At the Larry Bird Era

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Larry Bird retired from the Indiana Pacers less than three weeks ago. His time in Indianapolis should be remembered fondly.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Indiana Pacers
Larry Bird (top right) sits and watches the Indiana Pacers 2016 season opener with Donnie Walsh (bottom left) and Herb Simon (bottom right). Bird spent 13 seasons as Indiana’s President of Basketball Operations.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Indiana Pacers never won a championship under Larry Bird, but Indiana came close three different times. Right now, Bird’s time in Indianapolis might be a failure, but in hindsight it could have been worse.

Given the bad luck and limited resources Bird came as close as any Coach or President has come to winning a championship without winning it. Bird’s run with Indiana started in 1997 when he took the head coaching job from Larry Brown.

2000 Indiana Pacers: Larry Bird’s Final Year as Coach

Just five years before Bird took the job with Indiana he had retired from the Boston Celtics because of a back injury. When he accepted the head coaching job with the Indiana, the core of Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller, and Jalen Rose were already on the roster.

In Bird’s first two seasons in Indiana he would coach the team to back to back Eastern Conference finals. Indiana lost both times: first to the final championship run of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, then in 1999 to Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks.

The losses would set up a 1999-2000 season which would be the most successful Indiana season to date. When Jalen Rose was traded to Indiana in 1996 he expected to compete for a starting spot. However, coach Larry Brown had other plans. Based on Rose’s own account he believed Brown was trying to run him out of the league.

Once Bird was hired that all changed. In 1998 Rose played in all 82 games. By 2000 Rose was starting for Indiana, averaging 18 points, and won the Most Improved Player award.

Combining Rose’s rise with Reggie Miller and Bird’s coaching, in 2000 Indiana went 56-26, clinching the number one seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history. It took Indiana all five games to win their first-round series against Milwaukee. The Pacers pulled out Game 5 96-95.

Indiana would then cruise their way through the next two rounds winning series against Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers, and Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks, setting up a matchup with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers.

Indiana’s best opportunity to take control of the series came in Game 4. The game went to overtime and O’Neal fouled out midway through overtime after leading the team with 36 points. Kobe Bryant missed Game 3 with an ankle injury but returned and hit three clutch overtime shots to win Game 4. The Lakers went on to win the 2000 NBA Finals 4-2.

When Bird was originally hired, he said he would only coach three seasons. He did just that. Bird stepping down as Indiana’s coach after Indiana’s NBA Finals defeat. Over the next two seasons Rose and Jackson would be traded away setting up Bird’s next championship run as the President of the Pacers.

2004 Indiana Pacers: The Ticking Time Bomb, Donnie Walsh + Larry Bird

Indiana’s 2004 team was a conception of Donnie Walsh, the President of the Indiana Pacers from 1988-2008, and Larry Bird who was brought in as his Co-President in 2003.

After Bird’s departure as head coach and Indiana’s NBA finals loss, Walsh traded Dale Davis away for Jermaine O’Neal who would become Indiana’s best player over the next three seasons. Walsh then traded Jalen Rose away for a group of players that included Ron Artest. Walsh would also draft Jamaal Tinsley. All three transactions happened before Bird accepted the job as Co-President of the Indiana Pacers.

Bird added his own touch when he took over the team. He was instrumental in the firing of Isiah Thomas and replacing him with Rick Carlisle. In hindsight this was a great decision, Carlisle will go down as one of the best coaches in NBA history, while Thomas will not.

The combination of Carlisle’s coaching, O’Neal, Artest, Tinsley, and the golden years of Reggie Miller created one of the greatest teams in Indiana history. In 2004 Indiana went 61-21 and created an identity of toughness with great defense. Defense would be a staple of any Bird created team.

The Pacers would lose in six games in the Eastern Conference finals to the eventual champion Detroit Pistons. The series’ most infamous moment came in game two when Reggie Miller breakaway layup was blocked from behind by Tayshaun Prince.

The Detroit-Indiana series would jump start one of the most vicious rivalries in the NBA. The future looked bright in Indiana. The core pieces of O’Neal and Artest were 25 and 24 years old. But the vicious Detroit-Indiana rivalry would haunt Bird and the Indiana Pacers.

Coming into the 2004-05 season Indiana was a heavy favorites to win the NBA championship. The Lakers traded Shaq earlier in the offseason breaking up one of the best duos in NBA history. Then came November 19, 2004, the Malice at the Palace. Indiana fans know the rest of the story…

The 2013 and 2014 Indiana Pacers: The Injury that Ruined it All

The Pacers second best team of the 21st century started with the dismantling of the best one. On draft night in 2008 Bird pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Jermaine O’Neal to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for T.J. Ford and more importantly Roy Hibbert.

It would take Hibbert four years to add enough muscle to compete in the league. But by 2014 Hibbert had made two of the last three All-Star games.

The next move, maybe the greatest of Bird’s tenure, came during the 2010 draft. Local hometown kid and Butler University star, Gordon Hayward, was taken one pick before Indiana’s pick. Had he fallen who knows what would've happened next. But with the 10th pick Bird selected a sophomore out of Fresno State, named Paul George.

It took George only three seasons to shine. When Danny Granger went down with a knee injury before the 2013 season, George stepped up averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds. George would make the first team All-NBA defense in 2014. In 2016 George made third team All-NBA and is considered one of the best 15 players in the league.

Later in that same draft Bird would take a chance on Lance Stephenson. Stephenson was a total risk. He was arrested for pushing his girlfriend down the stairs, but it would pay off. In 2014 Stephenson had the best season of his career and nearly made the All-star game.

Bird tenure was not mistake free. After the 2011 season Bird realized Indiana needed a point guard if they had any shot at winning the Eastern Conference. On the 2011 draft night Bird made another trade. He traded the 15th pick to San Antonio for George Hill. The San Antonio Spurs picked Kawhi Leonard.***

Starting in 2011, Indiana progressed a playoff round further in each season. In 2012, Indiana went up 2-1 on LeBron James and the Miami Heat. They would lose that series 4-2, but Indiana had an 8-point halftime lead during Game 4.

Then in 2013 and 2014 Indiana made back to back Eastern Conference finals, losing to the Heat both times. In 2013 Indiana took Miami the distance.

Indiana had the number one defensive rating in 2013 and 2014. Indiana looked poised to compete for a championship with Stephenson, Hibbert, and George for at least the next five seasons. But just like the snap of a finger the championship window shut.

2014 was one of the worst off-seasons in Indiana history. It started with Lance Stephenson, who on bad advice from his agent, turned down the Indiana Pacers five year $44 million offer. Instead, Stephenson signed with Charlotte for two years and $18 million.

That was only the beginning. During a Team USA exhibition game Paul George went for a behind the back block on James Harden and snapped his leg in half.

It took George almost a full season to recover. When George returned Roy Hibbert’s skill set had fallen off a cliff and was traded during the 2015 offseason.

Larry Bird’s time in Indianapolis should be remember fondly. During his 18 years with Indiana, Bird would help Indiana make the playoffs 13 times, win 50 plus games four different times, Including the most wins in franchise history with 61, and make six Eastern Conference finals appearances.

Larry Bird is the only person to win the trifecta of NBA MVP, NBA Coach of the Year, and NBA Executive of the Year. Sadly, Bird’s time will be remembering more for the what if…

What if Ron Artest didn’t run into the stands in Detroit?

What if Bird kept Kawhi Leonard?

What if Lance Stephenson didn’t leave?

What if Paul George didn’t break his leg?

***There is some Rick and Morty alternate timeline where Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are playing on the same Pacers team. They became the Scotti Pippen-Michal Jordan of the 21st century and are still winning championships.