Welcome to the Greatest Moment series at Last Word On Pro Basketball, where we’ll present to you each NBA team’s greatest moment of the 21st century. From draft lottery luck, to a franchise-changing trade, to the sweet taste of a championship, every NBA team has had its own special moment to look back on.
In this edition, we will be reliving the greatest Indiana Pacers moment of the 21st century: The hiring of Larry Bird as the team’s President of Basketball Operations in 2003.
Greatest Indiana Pacers Moment of the 21st Century: Hiring Larry Bird as President of Basketball Operations
The Indiana Pacers peaked during the 1999-00 season, when they reached the NBA Finals for the first and only time to date. After those Pacers lost to a juggernaut Los Angeles Lakers team led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, Indiana was looking for a new identity. The Pacers acquired a talented young star the following off-season, center Jermaine O’Neal. Less than two years later, at the 2002 trade deadline, the team dealt for another building block, Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace). With Reggie Miller‘s Hall of Fame career coming to an end, the Pacers looked for a new face of the franchise. They set themselves up for the next decade and a half when they hired Larry Bird as the team’s President of Basketball Operations in 2003.
Bird was born and raised in the state of Indiana, where he became a basketball star in high school. He originally attended the University of Indiana on a scholarship before changing schools to attend Indiana State, where he won the Naismith College Player of the Year Award. In his off-seasons, Bird still lived in his hometown of French Lick. Decades later, after his playing career was long over, Bird went on to coach the Pacers for three seasons from 1997 to 2000. He coached the team to two division titles as well as one NBA Finals appearance.
Stability in the Front Office
When Bird was hired in 2003, he was promised authority over all basketball decisions, including drafting, trades, and the hiring of coaches. While the hiring of Bird might seem like a minor decision in the grand scheme of things, it is very easy to overlook the importance of having a stable front office. Bird was able to build the team he wanted, similar to how Pat Riley runs the Miami Heat.
Bird’s pedigree and fame from his playing career, along with his successful coaching tenure, earned him plenty of job security in the front office. He was in the management position for 13 years from 2003 to 2017, only taking a one-year hiatus in 2013. (Bird unexpectedly stepped down from his position in May 2017, moving into a much smaller role as a scout and consultant.) Bird’s leadership is one of the reasons that Indiana saw prolonged success. Under Bird, the organization had one clear vision of where it was going.
Acquiring Stephen Jackson
Bird began his career in the front office with a bang when he traded sixth man Al Harrington for a talented wing scorer, Stephen Jackson. At the time, Indiana had O’Neal and Artest, two young stars, terrorizing teams defensively. The addition of Jackson gave them a go-to scorer on the wing, as he averaged 19 points per game in his first season with the team. The core of O’Neal, Artest, and Jackson would not last long due to a series of injuries and a number of off-court issues. The ‘Malice at the Palace’ in November 2004 and the ensuing consequences (including suspensions) eventually forced Bird to split up the team’s strong core.
Drafting Danny Granger
The Pacers drafted Danny Granger with the 17th overall pick in 2005. Granger, who played his college basketball at New Mexico, made the 2005-06 NBA All-Rookie Second Team. He proved to be the steal of the 2005 draft. In 2009, Granger won the NBA Most Improved Player Award and was selected to the All-Star team. Granger, who was another elite wing scorer, averaged at least 20 points per game for four straight seasons in Indiana. The emergence of this young star made it more palatable to trade the injury-prone O’Neal. Unfortunately, a series of knee injuries cut Granger’s career short, forcing Bird to trade him in 2014.
Drafting Paul George
In 2010, Indiana drafted small forward Paul George with the 10th overall selection, once again finding a gem. Since then, George has become one of the faces of the league, making four All-Star appearances and three All-NBA teams. George has done all this despite missing over a year due to a horrific leg injury, which he suffered in a scrimmage for USA Basketball in the summer of 2014.
Indiana was one of the only teams in the Eastern Conference able to contend with Miami’s ‘Big Three.’ In the 2012-13 season, the Pacers clinched the Central Division title and reached the Eastern Conference Finals, taking the Heat to seven games. The following season, the Pacers earned the East’s top seed and again made the conference finals, losing to Miami once again. Their success was in large part due to the emergence of Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson – both of whom were drafted by Bird.
Bird’s Legacy as Pacers Team President
Larry Bird’s appointment was a major moment in the Indiana Pacers history, as it set the franchise up for a decade of success. A series of injuries to their star players will cause Pacers fans to wonder what could have been. Nevertheless, the team has been very successful over the last decade-plus, and fans can thank Bird’s craftiness for its prosperity.
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