Earlier this season, team owner Herb Simon asked Bird whether he was interested in returning. "He said, 'What do you want to do?' " Bird said. "I said, 'I don't want to talk about it.' "
Bird couldn't detail why he postponed that discussion, but the probability of an extended lockout must have played a role. Since taking full control of the franchise in 2008 (following the exit of his boss, Donnie Walsh, who moved to New York as president of the Knicks), Bird has been creating flexibility for Simon to exploit at the end of this season. A potential work stoppage that threatens next season appears to have underlined Bird's resolve to let his owner wait and see. Why should anyone commit to the future when no one knows what that future will bring?
Wait until the union negotiations play out, see what the new rules mean for a small-market team like the Pacers, and then let Simon decide how he wants to rebuild the franchise. Bird has established that end game by clearing Indiana's expensive payroll, establishing a young core of former All-Star Danny Granger to go with point guard Darren Collison and center Roy Hibbert, and giving Simon an open platform to do whatever he wants.
"Everybody on the basketball side is up except for a few players," Bird said of the Pacers' contracts that will expire this summer. "All of the trainers, coaches, scouts, me, [GM David] Morway, everybody in the office -- we're all up. As much money as we've lost at this franchise, the owner should have the opportunity to pick and choose who he wants to run the basketball side or coach the teams, and he's probably going to make some changes.
"After this season you get to start with a clean slate, and how many teams in the league do that or ever have done that? I'm proud of the fact he's got options, because he never had that before."
Despite reports that Simon ordered the firing of O'Brien, Bird insisted he was the decider. "I made that decision after the Orlando game," Bird said of the Pacers' blowout loss at home last Wednesday. Following a 110-89 defeat Saturday at Chicago -- the Pacers' 20th loss in 28 games -- Bird replaced O'Brien by promoting his longtime assistant Frank Vogel, who will be interim coach for the remainder of the season. Bird told me Monday that he expects Vogel to put the ball more often in Collison's hands in pick-and-roll situations, restore Hibbert's confidence by feeding him with quick hitters in the low post, and develop other youngsters, like rookie Paul George. A few hours later, all three Pacers excelled in a 104-93 win over the visiting Raptors. "Frank has great communication with the players," Bird said.
The 18-27 Pacers are one game behind Charlotte for the No. 8 spot in the East, and Bird believes they can make the playoffs for the first time in five years while developing their young talent.
"Look how many years it takes some of these teams to rebuild," Bird said. "Some of them take 10 years or 12 years. I thought I could do it in three years, and I still do believe it."
Bird has consistently sought to win games instead of trying to improve the Pacers' position in the lottery. Last year they went 10-4 over the final month to fall to No. 10 in the draft.
"We don't do that," he said of losing as a strategy. "That's not my mentality. This is a professional league, you're supposed to be professional and play every game like it's your last game and play to win. There are a million teams that tank, and I don't know what the league can do about it. But you don't want to send the message to your team that you want to lose. Right now, we're starting to play young guys, but it has nothing to do with the draft -- it's how our team is set up looking for the future. Our future is our young guys. We've got to give them time and I think I can win with them."
He believes the 6-foot-8 George can become "a special player."
"He's got length, he'll guard you, he rebounds his position," Bird said. "He's a streaky shooter but he wants to be good. He'll live in the gym."
O'Brien was a hard-driving coach in his four seasons with the Pacers, and Bird credits him with changing the post-Palace brawl culture of the franchise while demanding effort from the players. Someday they'll appreciate what O'Brien did for them, Bird believes.
"When you mention Bill Fitch," Bird said of his first NBA coach, who was openly disliked by many of Bird's fellow Celtics, "go back and ask all of my teammates who had problems with him. They'll all tell you he was the best coach they ever had. But guys are different now. They seem to be more sensitive."
In an era defined by the departures of LeBron James and Chris Bosh (with reports that Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul are soon to follow), the Pacers are built around a young star who has been adamant in wanting to stay in Indianapolis. Bird doesn't take Granger's loyalty for granted.
"There are rumblings the Pacers might trade him," Bird said of Granger. "He's been a trooper, and I'd rather bring people in here to help him out rather than to trade him. I sat him down and told him what we were going to do three years ago, and he was all in. He gets frustrated, but that's all.
"The thing is, if he ever came to me and asked me if I would trade him, that's different. But Danny has never done that."