By MICHAEL MAROT
INDIANAPOLIS — Larry Bird is bringing a new perspective to the Pacers.
After watching from afar as the team he rebuilt reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in nine years and came within one victory of dethroning NBA champion Miami, Bird thinks he has a pretty good idea what it will take to lead Indiana to its first league title.
“My dreams, my goals are set pretty high,” he said after being reintroduced as the team’s president of basketball operations Thursday. “I know how hard it is to win a championship. It’s tough. But when you have guys who stick together, who play together, who share the basketball and care about one another, it’s a hell of a start.”
It didn’t take Bird long to provide a glimpse of what might be different this time around.
While he concurred with his successor and predecessor Donnie Walsh and general manager Kevin Pritchard that the team’s top offseason priority is to re-sign free agent David West — the power forward Bird signed two years ago to toughen up the team — the blunt-talking Bird explained he’s ready to improve the team’s bench play.
That’s something fans complained about long and often all season.
Walsh and others inside the organization didn’t exactly see things the same way. When Walsh last took questions at a season-ending news conference two weeks ago, the soon-to-be reassigned team consultant said the bench essentially performed in the playoffs about as well as the front office expected.
Bird want to changes things up.
“One glaring need that I see is our bench,” he said. “The bench didn’t step up and play as well as we expected, so we have to upgrade that area and we don’t have a lot of money, so we’ll have to be creative.”
Officially, he won’t start working until Monday.
Clearly, though, the only man to win the league’s awards for MVP, coach of the year and executive of the year knows his stuff.
He won three NBA titles as a player, and as Indiana’s coach, led the Pacers to their only finals appearance in 2000. He retired after that season because of health problems, then returned to the Pacers front office in 2003. Bird worked alongside Walsh for the first five years before assuming control in 2008 when Walsh left for New York.
All Bird did since then was lay the groundwork to rebuild a team that had been reeling since the brawl in Detroit and Reggie Miller’s retirement, creating the foundation for one of the league’s younger teams to become a legitimate title contender.
While taking the one-year sabbatical, to again attend to his health, Bird was never far from the game that turned him from a small-town hot shot into a household name.
He kept close tabs on his team, joking Thursday that he could tell how the Pacers were doing simply by listening to his wife. He took notes, texted players repeatedly throughout the season and even attended a few games in Indianapolis, usually sitting next to Walsh.
Recounting his impressions from last season, Bird sounded like he was reciting book, chapter and verse from the team’s season review. He talked about the surprising loss of Danny Granger, the team’s early struggles to overcome the absence, the development of Lance Stephenson and how the team eventually came together and played the kind of basketball he envisioned.
And when asked whether he might trade Granger, Bird quickly responded with an emphatic no.
“There are still questions there,” Bird said when asked whether Granger was back to his old self. “But if he comes back that helps our bench.”
More than anything, the break gave Bird time to rest.
When he walked away June 27, 2012, again it was primarily because of health problems. He wouldn’t provide specifics Thursday, even declining to answer a question about whether he had surgery.
But when Bird reappeared, exactly one year to the day and in the same room he announced he was leaving, Bird sounded like a rejuvenated executive. He looked good, sounded excited and called it one of the best years he’s had physically and mentally as he promised to fulfill the multi-year contract he agreed to. Details of Bird’s deal have not yet been released.
Bird could have done something else.
He reportedly met with and was offered a chance to take over as Sacramento’s new GM and acknowledged he did speak with some people from a few other organizations without naming teams. But he downplayed the significance of those discussions after deciding that if he made a comeback it would be with a team he knew well, that was closer to home and on the cusp of becoming a title contender.
So when team owner Herb Simon recently pressed Bird for an answer, Larry Legend finally said yes.
“I talked to Donnie a couple of times throughout the season, and then about two, 2½ weeks ago, Herbie called and said ‘Either you want to do this or not.’ I understand that, they needed an answer,” Bird said. “That’s when I started thinking that I had better get back into it.”
Walsh will cede day-to-day control to Bird, Pritchard and coach Frank Vogel, who is now unexpectedly looking for two new assistant coaches.
Last week, associate head coach Brian Shaw left to take over as coach of the Denver Nuggets. On Thursday, Bird said assistant coach Jim Boylen also will not be back next season.
“I talked to him last night and I feel bad that he left,” Bird said of Boylen. “I know Frank has talked with several candidates out there and we’ll get the right fit. We lost Brian Shaw, too, and they’re both great coaches.”
But ultimately Bird is coming back for the one thing Pacers fans have been missing: A championship celebration.
“There’s some work to be done, there’s no question about it,” Bird said. “But we’re on the right track and hopefully we can move it forward another step.”