It is, perhaps, the strangest award the NBA hands out. The Executive of the Year award will go to Indiana Pacers boss Larry Bird this year, with his team seemingly in the midst of a rebuilding process and a good leap or two away from winning a championship. The honor rarely makes sense on the NBA's timetable, because unlike individual player awards, the Executive of the Year award is essentially a team honor; and it's a bit like handing a "Team of the Year" award to a group without the benefit of a championship to go off of.
This shouldn't take away from Bird's accomplishments, as his Pacers have wrested home-court advantage away from the Miami Heat in the bustle of a season that saw Indiana grab the third seed in the East just two years removed from four seasons spent in the lottery. It just remains an odd recognition, considering the fact that NBA executives don't live on single-year plans. Unless they hire Larry Brown to coach.
Bird has done well, considering that one-year term. In January of last season he fired Pacer coach Jim O'Brien and leaned on well-regarded but untested assistant Frank Vogel to make sense of Indiana's talented but inconsistent roster. Vogel flourished, winning 20 of 38 games with a group that O'Brien went 17-27 with, leading to a run through the lockout season that resulted in a winning percentage that would have given the Pacers 53 victories had they played the full 82-game schedule.
Throughout Indiana's run to the third seed the team worked with a payroll well below the NBA's salary cap, a startling realization considering both the team's success, and the fact that Indiana was paying two players eight figures a year. That bottom line was not only necessary because Indiana continues to be a failure at the gate (ranking 27th out of 30 NBA teams in attendance), but because the team badly needed to retain some sort of cap (if not payroll) flexibility moving forward after years of Bird's insistence on costly win-now moves.
Not only did Bird decline to use that space just for the sake of using it — like in a midseason trade for a player like Chris Kaman — he went completely hands off as Vogel worked with a roster known for its inconsistent play. Darren Collison's effectiveness went in and out, but he's pushed the Pacers into several wins when his game is on (or "in," I suppose). Paul George is still learning the ropes, but his all-around play has often given Vogel an element other teams haven't been able to counter. David West is quite stable, but Roy Hibbert tends to work in and out of games as well; and yet the Pacer center was good enough in 2012 to deservedly make the All-Star team.
All while Danny Granger, the team's most recognizable player, continued to contribute production just short of an All-Star level. I can't be too hard on Danny because I know exactly what it's like to peak in the year 2009, and just sort of hang on after that.
Meanwhile, Bird engineered a trade with San Antonio to secure the rights to local product George Hill for a draft pick in the middle of the first round. That selection was used on Kawhi Leonard, in the rare win-win for two teams badly both needing backcourt scoring (Indiana) and help on the wing (San Antonio). Signing David West through his prime (and not for a minute after it) for $10 million a year until 2013 was a masterstroke.
And, as is usually the case, a great many of these Executive of the Year awards come down to hiring the right coach, and Bird clearly "settled" on a winner in former assistant Frank Vogel. Vogel's exacting style might wear on his team a few years from now, but in the interim he's done a brilliant job with the rotation Bird has given him, and was a clear and deserved candidate for Coach of the Year.
That's an award Bird won, in 1998. Over a decade following his last MVP award, and 18 years following his Rookie of the Year recognition. It's become pretty apparent that this gentleman knows quite a bit about the game of basketball. Here's hoping he sticks around for a while, to see if that mantle can handle anything else.
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