Rebuilding is like recession: No one wants to hear about it or talk about it, but after enough time passes, it becomes inevitable.
For the Indiana Pacers, that inevitability has arrived.
While the Pacers are not in as dire straights as the Knicks (no marketable talent besides
The capped-out Pacers, who have a $66.7 million payroll this season, are tied into numerous long-term contracts. They are drawing crowds like
"I think everyone knows our challenges," said Pacers president
Where does Bird start? Here are four things Indiana has to do to get back in contention:
Walsh's decision to step down as the team's CEO has shaken up an already tumultuous situation. While Bird has been running the day-to-day operations since Walsh hired him in 2003, that didn't stopped general managers throughout the league from calling Walsh or, in some cases, Pacers vice president
"When other general managers call, they really want to call the person that they're going to be talking to and going to make that decision," Walsh said before being named Knicks president. "Since I've been here so long, a lot of them would call me because they felt I would ultimately make the decision. A lot of them would call Larry. You don't want that confusion out there."
Added Bird: "There is no question one voice is the way to go. A lot of younger GMs in the league would call me and some of the older guys would call Donnie. That really didn't make a lot of sense."
That sentiment was echoed by several executives I spoke with over the last week. "Larry could be tough to talk to if you didn't play with him," a Western Conference GM said. "And the older guys, the
With Walsh gone, Bird needs to establish stability in the front office. His first order of business should be to give coach
The fact that Bird and O'Brien are on the same page regarding the team's future is a positive. O'Brien said he and Bird have had "hundreds" of conversations since he was hired last May and "have not disagreed on anything in any of them." Throwing his full-throated support behind O'Brien would be a strong statement by Bird to his players that the coach is there to stay.
"I appreciate [O'Brien's effort] both on and off the court," Bird said. "Hopefully moving forward we will have a great working relationship."
This won't be easy. Tinsley (three years, $21.4 million left) and O'Neal (two years, $44.3 million) have unfavorable contracts, not to mention myriad other issues.
Tinsley has been involved in several off-the-court incidents in the last year and a half. Statistically, the 6-foot-3 Tinsley should be considered among the league's top playmakers; he is averaging 11.9 points and 8.4 assists this season. But the Pacers shopped him all over the league before the trading deadline and there were no takers. Look for the Pacers to continue those efforts in the offseason, even if they're ultimately forced to take 30 cents on the dollar for their starting point guard since 2001.
As for O'Neal, the 12-year veteran has struggled with injuries the last four seasons and may not be up to the role of franchise player anymore. And there aren't many teams out there willing to pay $22 million per season for a No. 2 guy.
New York, however, is an intriguing possibility for O'Neal. Walsh, who acquired O'Neal from Portland in 2000, might be amenable to bringing in his former player. In return, the Pacers could take back
Drafting the best available player is generally the best option, but the Pacers need to get specific. Bird told SI.com on Wednesday that the draft was his top priority and that there were "a couple" of players the Pacers were monitoring closely.
If O'Neal returns next season, finding a physical center to play alongside him should be a priority. Starting center
Meanwhile, if the Pacers could unload Tinsley, that would leave the point guard position wide open. Beyond Memphis'
This is not a quick fix. Unless they pick up some expiring contracts, the Pacers will not have any significant salary-cap space until 2010. The temptation might be to acquire a few stopgap players to keep the team in playoff contention in the weak East. But contending for an almost certain first-round exit and attracting a few hundred more fans per night should not be the priority. Building the team the right way should, and that process could take years.
"Some of the incidents we have had here with some of our players have really turned our fan base off," Bird said. "What we have to do as a group is put the type of team out there that our fans want to see. You come to our games, you can see all the empty seats, so there is a disconnect there. By getting the type of players that play hard every night and do the things in the community we should be doing, I think over time we'll get [the fans] to come back because they do have a great pride and a great passion for this team deep down."