Following the Indiana Pacers elimination in the first round the NBA Playoffs last spring, team president Larry Bird raised some eyebrows when he decided to fire longtime head coach Frank Vogel. Vogel’s 250 wins as Pacers head coach are second in franchise history to the 529 victories of Slick Leonard. And in Vogel’s tenure with the Pacers, only the Miami Heat and small forward LeBron James prevented him from getting to the NBA Finals. The Pacers missed the playoffs in 2015 as they only had the services of small forward Paul George for six games after he suffered a broken leg while playing for the United States Men’s Basketball Team in the summer of 2014. And after the Golden State Warriors would win the NBA Championship in 2015 via the “small ball” philosophy, the 2015-2016 season would the see the Pacers get on board with that notion which included George playing power forward. George did respond by averaging 23.1 points and 7 rebounds as the Pacers appeared to be building off of something. But when Bird decided to fire Vogel, the Pacers lost their soul.
Vogel would be replaced by assistant coach Nate McMillan whose head coaching record coming into this season was 478-452. McMillan was able to lead both the Seattle Supersonics and Portland Trail Blazers to the playoffs, but there appears to be a huge disconnect with him and the current Pacers team.
Last summer Bird went out to improve the talent around George by acquiring the likes of point guard Jeff Teague and power forward Thaddeus Young. However the Pacers have been unable to get in sync all season. The Pacers record of 37-40 has them tied with the Heat for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But if the season were to end today, it would be Miami that would be heading to the postseason. The Pacers were expected to be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, but instead there is a possibility that they’ll be watching the playoffs from home which all falls into the lap of Bird.
Over the past few years Bird has made some questionable moves for the Pacers which included him trading the draft rights of Kawhi Leonard to the San Antonio Spurs in 2011, along with shipping longtime small forward Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014. The firing of Vogel was the cherry on top and George more than likely has not turned a blind eye to all of this.
In 2013, George signed a five-year, $90 million extension with the Pacers. At the time life was good for Indiana as they were in the midst of consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. But since then the overall production of the Pacers has declined and George is noncommittal to signing another extension to remain in Indiana. For George’s seven-year NBA career he has averaged 17.9 points per contest, while he is chiming in with a career-high 23.2 points per game this season. George is a four-time NBA All-Star and as he’ll be 27-years of age next month, he wants to win. George is under contract with the Pacers through 2019, but if Bird doesn’t want an unhappy camper on his hands, the time fix things in Indiana is now.
Bird has tried to change with the times, but the Pacers have gotten away from their identity which is playing solid defense and grinding out games. Going back to Indiana’s last trip to the Eastern Conference Finals which came in 2014, they were second in the NBA in points allowed that season at 92.3 per contest. However this season the Pacers are surrendering 105.8 points per game which is 16th in the league. Indiana is 1-6 over their last seven games as they surrendered at least 109 points in each of those. And even if the Pacers were to make the playoffs this year, they would be a one and done in the postseason as they would have to either face the Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics in the first round.
But as good as George is, he is not a player that can carry a team as he needs to play alongside another very talented player. Teague is Indiana’s second leading scorer at 15.3 points per game, while he is averaging 7.8 assists per contest, however he is not a player who can consistently get 20 points per contest. And the same can be said about center Myles Turner who is averaging 14.4 points and 7.2 rebounds this season.
Bird is a very competitive person as we’re talking about a man who led the Celtics to three NBA Titles, while he was also a three-time league MVP. Bird is going to give it everything that he has in order to turn things around for the Pacers and even if that means parting with McMillan in order to appease George, then so be it. The Pacers already have more than $80 million committed to player salaries for next season, while the trade route is also an option for Larry Legend in order to make his team better. Bird did some pretty amazing things on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden during his playing career, and he’ll need to once again be crafty if he wants to keep George in a Pacers uniform.