Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon has heeded Larry Bird's private and public proclamations that Bird is working his final year as the team's president, that his staying through the lockout had been a favor to his boss. As Simon investigates possible succession plans, there's one candidate emerging over everyone else: Pacers legend Reggie Miller.
Simon has been canvassing people he respects – including his longtime former general manager Donnie Walsh – for opinions about how they believe Miller would do with the transition from television to management. Several people with longstanding ties to Miller and the Pacers are pushing Miller to pursue the job, and as one tells Yahoo! Sports: "He's going to look hard at this, if it's presented in the right way."
Simon has considered this possibility for several years, sources said, and thinks the timing could be right to groom Miller to run his basketball operations. This is likely Miller's one chance to ever run a team. And where else would he rather do it, but in the city, the state, where he became basketball royalty?
Nevertheless, there's risk for everyone. Miller has a cushy national TV analyst's job with TNT, and he'd have to jeopardize his standing as an iconic Indiana figure. He's the greatest, most beloved player in Pacers history. He'll take hits upstairs that he never had to take on the court.
Simon has always been most comfortable hiring people he knows and trusts, people that resonate within the Indiana basketball culture. From French Lick's Larry Bird to Indiana Hoosier legend Isiah Thomas, he's never been afraid to take a chance with legendary names for his most important jobs. And the reason Simon could bring Miller, with no executive experience, to the Pacers is the same reason he brought Bird and Thomas to Indianapolis: the chance for Walsh to mentor Miller.
"Herb really wants that to happen," says a league official with close ties to Miller and Walsh.
If Bird does leave, there's momentum growing for Walsh to return to the Pacers with Miller. Strong ties still bind Walsh, Simon and Miller. Within weeks of his departure from the New York Knicks, Walsh had been telling confidants he was refreshed and eager to work again. He didn't leave New York because he was tired of the job, but weary of the Garden culture. He's 70 years old, but Walsh isn't done with the NBA. He doesn't want to leave Indianapolis again, and this could be perfect for him.
After all, Walsh and Miller are still close, and still closely tied in Pacers history. Walsh made the unpopular choice of taking Miller in the 1987 NBA draft, and yet ultimately Miller became the centerpiece for years of Eastern Conference contention. Once Miller retired in 2005, Walsh turned over the Pacers to Bird, and eventually made his move back to his hometown New York Knicks. After four years on the job, Walsh made the Knicks relevant again, but he missed Indianapolis and his life there. His wife and family had stayed back, and Walsh returned for good in June.
Walsh is extremely fond of Miller, and sources say Simon believes Miller could evolve into a good basketball executive. The possibility of teaching him the trade, the craft, and eventually handing the Pacers over to Miller is intriguing to Walsh too, sources said. Miller isn't the only choice, because there's one more ex-Pacer that the owner and Walsh have a fondness for: Chris Mullin. Walsh wanted to hire Mullin with the Knicks, but ownership wouldn't allow it. Still, Reggie is Reggie in Indiana. There's no more magical pro basketball name there.
For now, the Pacers' front office is waiting to see what happens. All of its executives and scouts are on year-to-year contracts now. GM David Morway would love the chance to replace Bird, but that's an unlikely scenario, sources said. For some, there was a belief that the hiring of former Portland Trail Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard as director of player personnel could be a precursor to Pritchard's ascension, but that's doubtful too. Simon was ambivalent over Pritchard's hiring, sources say, but allowed Bird the leeway to bring him into the franchise for the next year.
As much as anything too, Bird has done the hard part here. The pain of rebuilding has been endured, and the Pacers have a young nucleus to be a playoff team for several years in the Eastern Conference. With salary cap space to spend after the lockout, Indiana has a chance to move up from the eighth spot it had in the 2010-11 playoffs. As he did with coaching the Pacers, Bird has grown tired of the job's grind, and seems inclined to return to his Florida home on a year-round basis.
"They asked me to stay another year through the lockout season, the owner did, for a favor," Bird told the Boston Globe in June. "I was leaving, but [Simon] asked me to stay, and I will and I'll get the job done.
"I just think the franchise is in a good position right now, and I want to leave it in a good position for the next guy to do some good things. Sometimes you just look at it and say, 'Hey, I've done enough. I've got it in the position I want to get it in,' and you move on. I've got another year here and I'm going to try to do the best I can to get this team back to winning."
Yes, Larry Bird did Herb Simon a favor and stayed on the job through the lockout. This gives the owner time to work on a succession plan, and his preferred choice for the future could be replacing one Indiana icon with the greatest Pacer of all. If Reggie Miller ever wanted to run a team, this would be his chance, his franchise.